Health experts anywhere, including those in the Federal government tell us we need to move more, sit less and eat a healthy diet, especially as we age. Yet, the majority of adults over 65 aren’t following these guidelines. What’s stopping ordinary folks from following this advice? Over half of American seniors are not getting the recommended 150 minutes a week of aerobic exercise. 150 minutes can mean walking briskly for 30 minutes five days a week. One can cut that number of recommended minutes in half if the activity is vigorous, such as hiking, running or climbing.
Experts also recommend two days a week of activity that strengthens muscles. That could mean lifting dumbells or anything that requires effort to move your muscles against some kind of resistance. Most seniors aren’t doing that either. Despite the convenience of being able to do muscle strengthening right in one’s home with light weights, soup cans or inexpensive devices, the majority of older folks just aren’t going for it. Imagine using exercise bands while watching TV. You don’t have to get off the couch for that part.
We tend to be less capable of balancing as we age, and the experts recommend doing balancing exercises two times a week. That could mean standing on one foot for a time and practicing keeping upright. It sounds simple, right? But that’s not happening with most elders either.
What Happens If You Prefer To Be A Couch Potato?
Probably nothing that looks like an emergency to you is suddenly going to pop up in your life if you are a non-exerciser. But, be assured, you are likely to pay the price down the road. The damage from too much inactivity is subtle. It sneaks up over time. You might notice weight gain as an early clue that your aging process is not going to be great. What’s a few pounds here and there? What’s the big deal? Doesn’t everyone gain some weight as we age? Well, not necessarily. The saying goes: “if you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always gotten”. And if that means getting heavier, you can be sure more than your vanity will suffer as the pounds pile on with the years. Excess weight sets you up for high blood pressure, joint pain, diabetes, cardiac disease and lots of other things we don’t want.
What Motivates Us?
Is the ordinary person supposed to feel guilty for not getting off the couch? It’s sooo comfortable! One is used to it, and the pattern of how we spend our days is hard to change. No one suggests that this is easy!
Guilt isn’t likely to get you moving, but fear might. From my perspective as a retired Public Health Nurse, can say that those chronic diseases you develop from being ever so sedentary are quite unpleasant. They are scary. And lots of chronic illness is preventable. For example, heart attacks kill more people than anything else in our country. If you don’t want one, you’ve got to take more walks, at least. Diabetes can wreck your enjoyment because when it’s diagnosed, you have to follow a restrictive diabetic diet. Your life depends on it. And if it gets worse, you might have to take insulin every day. That’s an expensive nuisance but you could need it to stay alive. These are just two examples of chronic diseases that can typically be prevented with a few smart choices in a person’s everyday life.
Getting Started-The Basics
Perhaps the simplest way to get yourself off the couch is to start out with a plan to walk every day. You need a decent pair of walking shoes. They don’t have to be high end or expensive. Discount stores and sale shoes are just fine as long as you find them comfortable. Get some if you don’t own any already.
You need comfortable walking clothes suitable for the weather. Elastic waists, loose fit, and breathable fabrics help a lot. And then there is the scheduling. If you use a calendar, whether electronic or paper, put a time and day down for yourself. Put those shoes by the door you use to leave your house or apartment. Start a walk with any number of minutes, even five. If you are new to this, that’s perfectly fine. Do that every day for five days that week. If it goes all right you can add a minute or a few more minutes each week. Pick up the pace as you get a little stronger. When you’re up to 30 minutes a day walking briskly, you’re getting the basic amount recommended.
Keep It Up
Commit to this routine and keep going. Some say it takes 21 days to create a new habit. If you do get into the habit and something interferes, like illness or anything that throws you off your task, get back at it as soon as you can. Measuring how much you move each day on your calendar gives you a visual reminder of your progress. Congratulate yourself for any improvement over where you started.
I spent years of my life working with older patients who were suffering all the nasty effects of chronic disease, disability that went with disease, and loss of function. They had years of frustrating, unhealthy aging through the later parts of their lives. Some used to tell me they regretted not taking better care of themselves earlier. They were depressed and sad about the loss of independence, pain, inconvenience, doctors’ visits, and medications all the time.
My heart went out to them because it was too late to prevent the preventable. We worked on coping and adjusting and recovering what they could. Chronic pain was a recurring, depressing issue. Taking pain medication every day has a definite downside. Drug interactions and side effects are part of that. If you don’t want to be in their situation, there is a direction to a big part of healthy aging: get moving. Anything is better than nothing but why stop at such a low standard as almost nothing? Walking, dumbells or exercise bands, and balancing exercise.
I follow my own advice. The woman in the picture above is someone I met after a triathlon in which we both participated. She was about 80 years old, a great example of taking exercise to a higher level. I want to be like her, with a long healthspan, not just a long lifespan. How we age is a lot about our everyday decisions on how we spend our time.