You may not be able to run 20 miles anymore, but you know you need to strike a balance between marathon running and couch sitting. Are a couple of walks around the block each week enough, or is it finally time to put that gym membership you’ve been paying for to use? If you’re struggling to balance work, caregiving and protecting your achy joints, it can be difficult to make room for exercise — or even know where to begin.
Engaging in regular physical activity is one of the most important things older adults can do to improve or maintain their health, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It also keeps your muscles strong, so you can more easily complete daily activities well into your golden years. The CDC also provides this rule of thumb: Each week, you should strive for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (such as brisk walking) and two days of strength training, as well as activities that promote balance. For some, this routine might seem overwhelming, but New Hampshire senior fitness experts say that if you take one step at a time, you might be surprised by how much you can accomplish.
Judy Wilson, a certified personal trainer at The Works Health & Family Fitness Center, a department of Wentworth-Douglass Hospital, agrees that all adults should try to get at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity most days of the week. These activities could include brisk walking, swimming, dancing, using a rowing or elliptical machine, or riding a stationary bike. Some kinds of yard work, like raking or shoveling, could also count toward your goal. Hitting your cardio target can result in decreased blood pressure, reduced anxiety, better sleep and improved cognition, Wilson says. As for strength training, you should focus on doing exercises that target major muscle groups, such as your core, back, chest, arms and legs. Whether you choose to use weights, machines or your own body weight, strength training is key to maintaining your muscle mass, she says.
“We begin to lose muscle mass beginning around age 35 and lose another 1 to 2 percent every year,” Wilson says. “I ran for many years and thought that was enough. Several years ago, I added weight lifting to my workouts. I wish I had started years earlier. I’m 62 now.”
While joining a gym isn’t required to jumpstart your exercise routine, it can offer a variety of equipment options, accountability, support and community. Some gyms offer virtual classes and training opportunities as well. If you know you won’t go, you can buy inexpensive equipment and tap into free or low-cost fitness apps to help keep you on track. At the same time, fitness watches and free apps like MyFitnessPal can help you track both exercise and nutrition.
“I’ve set up clients to work out at home with a stability ball, resistance bands, a few dumbbells of different weights and sometimes a TRX,” she says. “An occasional check-in with a coach can help you to modify your routine as needed.”
Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number
Even if you’re well past retirement age, that’s no excuse to throw in the towel, experts say. While you may have certain chronic illnesses or injuries to be mindful of, there’s probably a way you can modify activities so that you can reap the benefits of exercise and enjoy it.
Kim Lowell, a wellness and risk reduction specialist who teaches senior fitness classes at Catholic Medical Center, says she’s seen firsthand what 70- and 80-year-olds in her virtual senior fitness classes can accomplish. While individuals with specific injuries might need to take exercise slower or require modifications, there often isn’t much of a difference between what a 50-year-old and a 70-year-old can do, depending on the person, she says.
As we age, we lose bone mass and bone density, which underscores our need to incorporate strength training into exercise routines. Lowell says that she helps seniors build up their strength and endurance, focusing on sitting and squatting, and pushing and pulling. Once someone gets strong enough using their own body weight and learns correct form, she then feels comfortable adding weights to their routine. For older adults who have illnesses such as heart disease, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, for example, Lowell suggests that they seek out specialists who can advise them and connect them to the right programs. Catholic Medical Center offers a cardiac rehabilitation program and specific classes for individuals who live with these diseases, and free yoga to anyone going through cancer treatment. Working with your health care provider can get you on the right track to beginning and maintaining a routine that considers your own health condition and goals.
If you’re otherwise healthy, you should aim to make progress and not worry about falling short of perfection. By taking small steps, you might surprise yourself. At 54, Lowell competed in her first body building competition in September 2022.
“By tracking 10,000 steps a day, lifting weights — nothing extreme — and tracking my foods, I was able to lose 25 pounds and get on stage,” she says. “I’ve often heard, ‘You can’t do that; you’re too old.’ You are never too old to exercise. It may look a little different, but the body does need to keep moving.”
There’s No Time Like the Present
Whether you’ve been lax in your fitness routine for two years or all of your life, the best time to start is now, experts say. Rather than shooting for 10,000 steps a day in week one, just start moving, says Jennifer Prudhomme, an advanced personal trainer and certified senior fitness specialist with Elliot Fitness Services at Elliot Hospital. Jennifer is specially certified to teach evidence-based classes that focus on balance and fall prevention.
Among the classes she teaches are Seniors in Motion; Weights, Bands and Balance; Mindful Movement and Meditation; Tai Ji Quan: Moving for Better Balance; chair aerobics; traditional aerobics; and an eight-week, evidence-based program called Matter of Balance, which helps seniors learn ways they can prevent falls in the home.
“Start moving,” she says. “Go slow. Walking is a fantastic way to start. Listen to your body. How do your joints feel? Do you have pain? While we’re not running marathons, walking gets a big gold star.”
If your day or week just hasn’t allowed you to put fitness first, you need to work on ditching “all or nothing” thinking when it comes to the incremental benefits of exercise, Lowell says. Take one day and one step at a time.
“People think that if they can’t do a 30-minute workout, they should give up,” she says. “What’s wrong with fitting in 10 minutes of exercise a day? You could lift for 10 minutes and walk for 10 minutes. There are so many benefits to it.”
You don’t have to embark on your exercise journey alone. Teaming up with an exercise buddy or community not only provides that extra accountability, but it can make fitness more fun. Setting goals at the beginning of the week can also set the stage for success. Wilson suggests morning exercise (to help you feel more energetic during the day) and putting on your workout clothes as soon as you get out of bed. Most of all, she urges adults to forgive themselves for past exercise transgressions so they can move forward in a positive way.
“Stop feeling guilty about the past or thinking you’ll never be able to meet your goals,” she says. “Start small, and sometimes that includes just putting on your workout clothes!”