At the beginning of the twenty-first century, human longevity continues to increase at ever greater rates; it is no longer uncommon for seniors to live for a hundred years and longer. This longevity can mostly be attributed to breakthroughs in disease control and prevention, as well as enhanced public health measures worldwide. However, a greater awareness of personal habits has played a greater role too. What can we do, in our own lives, to increase our chance of living longer?
Exercise Counters Damage Caused By Free Radicals
Exercise is one of the first things that comes to mind; if we keep physically fit, it’s only logical that we stand a better chance of enjoying a longer and healthier life. Biologically, the benefits of an exercise regime are associated with what is known as the free radical theory of aging. All matter, including living matter, is fundamentally composed of atoms, and atoms are made up of a nucleus surrounded by a cloud of electrons. Electrons occur in pairs, but occasionally a single electron will spin off and be lost, leaving that atom with an unpaired electron. This atom is called a “free radical,” and it is reactive, causing cell damage. Because free radicals occur commonly, cell damage becomes an ongoing process, and this causes the organism to age.
Exercise speeds up our metabolism: it speeds up the process of converting food to energy. As part of this process, exercise also speeds up the body’s production of free radicals. The body then responds naturally by producing large amounts of antioxidants, which interact with free radicals and render them harmless. (Antioxidants can also be consumed as food supplements; vitamin E, for instance, is rich in antioxidants.)
Begin With a Balanced Exercise Program
However, if you’re just starting out with an exercise regime, it’s important to maintain balance. Because exercise in fact stimulates the production of free radicals, a fast start to an exercise program — or an intermittent program, in which you work out hard over the weekends but are sedentary throughout the week — may overwhelm your system’s defenses with an abundance of free radicals and end up doing more harm than good. A balanced program, in which you do moderate workouts on a regular basis, will ensure that your body is able to produce sufficient antioxidants to counteract the free radicals, not only those that are stimulated by your exercise program but those that occur naturally.
What kind of exercise program is most effective for someone just starting out, particularly for seniors? Most workouts consist of three broad areas: an aerobic workout, which temporarily increases your heart rate through running, climbing, swimming, cycling, or some other physical activity; a stretching program, which keeps your body limber, increasing your flexibility and the range of motion in your joints; and a weightlifting program, which tones your muscles, increasing both muscle and bone density.
Cardio exercises improve the health of your heart and help you lose weight by increasing your metabolism. If you’re just starting, start out slowly! A brisk walk outside, or even doing some yard work, will get your heart pounding and have a beneficial impact. If you want to do more, focus on low-impact activities that don’t damage your knees or other joints. Jogging outside or on a treadmill puts pressure on your knees with each step; people who jog throughout their lives often develop chronic knee injuries. Likewise, a stair climber can, over time, damage your knees. Swimming is often considered one of the best cardio exercises; you also exercise various muscle groups when you’re swimming. And many gyms offer a range of “elliptical” machines, which are similar to treadmills but which don’t require you to lift your feet and pound your knees with each step. The motion is similar to that of cross-country skiing, with your knees moving in a gentle rotation.
If you’re doing cardio, drink plenty of water. And don’t overdo it. You should not be breathing so hard that you can’t talk, and if you begin to feel dizzy, then stop immediately.
Stretch Before and After Exercising
It’s best to stretch after your cardio workout, while your muscles are still warm. Be sure to work with a trainer to learn the techniques; improper stretching can cause damage and even tear your tissues. During stretching, you should feel mild discomfort or pulling, but never pain, especially in the joints. If you feel pain, stop immediately, and then try again without going so far. And ease your muscles into a stretch gradually, then draw back; don’t bounce in and out of a stretch. Your movements should be slow and steady.
There are various stretching movements that you can do to increase flexibility in your shins, legs, back, shoulders, arms, and other parts of your body. Once you learn the techniques, you can stretch at home, using a mat on the floor.
Finally, you should engage in a weightlifting program at least a few times a week, most easily at a gym, where you’ll find a range of machines and free weights and a trainer to give you advice. Our muscle mass begins declining by as much as 1 percent per year as early as age 30, so moderate weight lifting should be a lifelong pursuit; if you’re starting late, consult with a doctor, and take it easy at first. Lift weights for all your muscle groups: lower body (legs and buttocks), chest, back, stomach (abdominals), shoulders, biceps, and triceps. For each exercise, do two or three sets of 10-15 repetitions each, perhaps adding weight for the second set. If, over time, the weights begin to feel light, then add weight gradually. Focus on good form and steady motions rather than jerking the weights around; if you can’t control your motion, you may be lifting too much weight.
To keep yourself in the best health, you should begin an exercise program early in your adult life, but it’s never too late to get started.