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Exercising mind and body in older age

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Life is a precious commodity, one that most of us are lucky enough to take for granted during our younger years, when the future seems infinite and our energy boundless.

Then time intervenes. As the decades pass, that energy seems a tad less boundless. There’s less in the tank. It’s a little more difficult to get up those stairs; the walk to the shops seems longer. Maybe it’s easier to sit back and accept that age is catching up with us.

Well, here’s a different way of thinking. There has never been a better time for aging gracefully. Improvements in overall diet, medical knowledge and health support are working together to provide ways of combating the changes in our body’s flexibility and strength. That is allied with an overall attitude shift towards those of us who are older, a realisation within society of the value of expertise and experience, the rise of the Silver Surfers.

Let’s make the most of every day we have, and exploit the opportunities of being alive. The American writer Betty Friedan put it well: “Aging,” she wrote, “is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”

Our priorities do change, of course. When grandchildren and then great-grandchildren come along, we want to share in their fun, help out when possible – and that in itself can be enormously rejuvenating. We may also have to care for a loved one, in which case staying healthy, for them, is increasingly significant.

Whichever reason inspires you, keeping healthy at any age is important.1 It allows you to stay as active as possible for as long as possible, so that you can carry on doing all the things that make you happy.

Now we know we can’t really turn the clock back, but regular, active exercise can at least help keep it ticking for longer. Muscle mass, for example, diminishes without activity over the years, but we can work on restoring it, and that helps sustain strength, co-ordination and balance.

How do we go about this, especially if we have never been that active, or have got out of the habit of regular exercise? The good news is that it is never too late to start. There is time (something which after retirement it sometimes feels there is too much of in the day) to start getting back into the habit, just gently and gradually. The worst thing is to leap up one morning and launch into an Olympian exercise regime. In fact that could be disastrous, so plan a little additional exercise every week as you build up your confidence, strength and determination. Pace yourself.

Have a good think about the kind of activity that you might enjoy and that would suit your particular lifestyle. It is always worth going to have a chat with your doctor. They will be able to advise you on a suitable level of exercise. Also, they will now know that you are making positive, active choices to improve your health, and will be supportive and can point you in the right direction. If your mobility is restricted there are now many more options and pieces of equipment for adding exercise to your routine.

As for all adults, you are aiming for a mixture of aerobic exercise four or five times a week, combined with some muscle-strengthening activity – which can be as simple as taking the stairs at home or using some very light weights in the swimming pool.

It’s just that the exercise might not be as strenuous as you once enjoyed. So if you cycle, maybe start off on flat, gently undulating routes rather than heading up a nearby hill. Walking is always going to be good for you, so you could choose a flattish walk but at a nearby beauty spot, so you can take a photo when you are up there to remind yourself of the end point and to show your family and friends.

Building in an element like photography is a great way of making the exercise you do even more enjoyable. If you use a treadmill for walking or running you can prop up a tablet computer and watch a movie or TV show you missed. And of course sharing the experience, as part of a water aerobics or dancing class, adds to the motivation and enjoyment.

Yoga and Pilates classes are a wonderful chance to sustain flexibility, as part of a low-impact, mind-soothing activity. T’ai chi,2 like yoga, helps retain a sense of balance, which in turn reduces the chance of having a fall. Regular classes also add structure to your week, and add an upbeat focus to the day.

These gradual, gentle activities – alongside a healthy diet with plenty of high-quality protein and the fresh fruit and vegetables that provide the antioxidants and micronutrients useful in keeping us looking and feeling younger – offer the prospect of all-round benefits, just as they do throughout our lives.

The last word goes to Groucho Marx: “Getting older is no problem. You just have to live long enough.”

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