Physical fitness is one of the most important considerations for any retiree. People in their 40s and 50s often stay fit simply through the normal activities of daily life, commuting to work every day, rushing here and there, and making the most of weekends and days off by engaging in active leisure pursuits. And increasing numbers of adults are managing to fit a full exercise regime into their schedules as well, either at a gym or at home. If you’re still young or middle-aged, it’s always good advice to get into the habit of working out on a regular basis. If you’ve already retired but haven’t set foot in a gym since you were a senior in high school, then starting up an exercise routine now will ensure that you have a long and fulfilling retirement.
The Exercise Program
A well-rounded workout consists of four broad activities; seniors need some of each.
First are endurance activities, or “cardio”: walking, running, swimming, bicycling, climbing stairs, and the like. These activities improve the health of your heart and circulatory system. Second are strengthening exercises: working out your muscles by lifting weights. These exercises help build muscles, reducing or reversing the muscle loss that typically occurs during one’s older years. Third is stretching — keeping the body flexible and limber, and better able to sustain falls and other accidents. Finally, there are balancing exercises, which also help reduce the chance of a fall. Note that, with the exception of balancing exercises, a person of any age would follow basically the same pattern of activities during a typical workout.
Cardio activities increase your heart rate for a sustained period of time; this strengthens both your heart and circulation as well as your lung capacity. There are two broad categories of cardio activities. Aerobic exercise involves running, or swimming, or riding a bike at a regular pace for a sustained period of time (at least half an hour). Interval training, on the other hand, includes shorter bursts of fast-tempo exercise, usually alternating with the slower, “resting” pace.
The most important consideration for a senior doing a cardio workout is not to overdo it. There are three factors to consider in determining how much is enough. The first is frequency: how often should you get your heart rate up? For overall fitness, three cardio workouts per week is about right. Any less than that, and you might not be able to maintain fitness; any more, and you may overstress yourself. The second factor is duration. A good cardio workout can be as short as 20 minutes, and many specialists believe that a short workout, including bursts of higher-intensity activity (i.e., interval training) is more beneficial than slower but sustained activity. An aerobic workout — at which you exercise at a slower overall pace — can last as long as an hour.
The third factor is intensity. Interval training, obviously, entails a higher-intensity workout than aerobics. Intensity will vary with each individual, but there are a few yardsticks for measurement. “Aerobic intensity” is a level of activity that allows you to talk in short sentences without gasping. A slow-paced jog (or fast walk) outdoors can be done at aerobic intensity. If you pick up the pace and begin to suffer a bit, and can no longer converse comfortably, you have crossed from aerobic to anaerobic exercise and are now working out at “threshold intensity.” Finally, if you exercise at the fastest pace you can manage for a designated period of time (say, 20-40 seconds), you have reached “sprint intensity.” Try to mix in a combination of these intensity levels.
As with cardio exercise, lifting weights about three times each week is right for most seniors. Most trainers will recommend alternating lifting with cardio; if you do both on the same day, lifting weights first is usually most effective. There are dozens of different lifting exercises you can do to build up specific muscles; most weight trainers divide these exercises into upper body (arms, shoulders, chest, and back), lower body (legs and buttocks), and abdominals. Another strategy is to lift weights four times a week, alternating between lower and upper body and doing some sit-ups (abdominals) each time.
It’s crucial to work with a trainer until you become familiar with the routines and motions. For each specific exercise, it is common to do two or three sets of 10-15 repetitions per set, increasing the weight from one set to the next. All movements should be clean and smooth; if you’re jerking the weights or losing control of them, then reduce the amount you’re lifting. If you feel any pain, stop immediately. A weight-lifting session should last from 30 to 45 minutes; any longer than that, and you may overtax yourself.
As we age, our muscles shorten and lose their elasticity; stretching exercises will help offset this loss of flexibility. If you incorporate breathing exercises and focus on good posture during stretching, you can relieve tension as well as maintain or improve your body’s range of motion. Stretching can also relieve back pain and offset the effects of arthritis, so common among seniors. There are two broad methods of stretching; “static stretching” involves holding a position for 10 to 30 seconds in a low-load, prolonged stretch, whereas “dynamic stretching” involves oscillatory motions to increase range of motion. Static stretching is safer, but both methods can be used during a stretching session. As with lifting weights, work closely with a trainer as you become familiar with the motions; at the farthest extent of a stretch, you can begin to approach pain, but you should feel no actual pain. If you do, stop immediately. You can stretch four to five times each week — try to incorporate some stretching into each of your workouts.
Finally, many seniors benefit from balancing exercises. These exercises, which can be done at home, reduce the chance of a fall, and so are especially important for seniors aged 75 and above. Exercises can be as simple as holding onto the back of a chair while standing on one leg, balancing a wand in the palm of your hand, and standing with your feet in a shoulder-wide stance and rotating your body in a circle. If you can’t find a trainer to help, there are many instructional videos online that can teach you these simple routines.
The longer you put off establishing an exercise routine, the harder it will become. Get into the habit now, even if you’re years from retirement, and you can enjoy good health for decades to come.