By Janna M. Hall
As we move further into a technology-driven age, we’re finding more reasons to sit and less reasons to get moving. The bulk of our work is done sitting down, usually bound to a desk, and if we’re not at a desk, we’re returning home after a long day’s work and plopping down on the couch until it’s time to lie in bed for the next eight hours. The truth is that we as a nation are spending less time on our feet and even less time in the gym. It’s worth noting, though, that the younger generations are beginning to place more focus on their health, with fitness trackers gaining popularity. Unfortunately, their parents’ and grandparents’ generations haven’t quite been bitten by the exercise bug. AARP has reported that about 40% of people between the ages of 45 and 64 are considered sedentary, meaning they continue to spend a great deal of their time inactive. And when it comes to people over 64? That percentage increases to 60%.
This number is alarming. Over half of our senior citizens aren’t getting adequate physical activity. The stats are troubling for more reasons than one. First, research actually links the lack of physical activity with a faster mental decline. Because exercise increases the blood flow to all parts of your body, including your brain, the chances that seniors will experience dementia and Alzheimer’s disease greatly decrease. In addition to brain health, becoming more physically active will help both wounds and injuries to heal faster. As we know, healthcare becomes costlier as we grow older, so maintaining a healthy heart, mind, and body will cut down on those medical costs further down the road.
There’s no better investment in yourself than leading an active lifestyle, and though the transition may be difficult for seniors after retirement, it’s critical that it becomes an integral part of your daily routine. If you’re part of that sedentary age group the AARP speaks of, or are looking to improve your overall health the natural way with exercise, we’ve got a few tips to help you get started.
A surefire way to set yourself up for failure is to set lofty goals for a fitness-focused lifestyle that will only last a week before you’ve thrown in the towel. Instead, think about activities that you already enjoy, such as walks around the neighborhood, water aerobics, or a ride on the stationary bike, and decide that those will be your go-to workouts. If you typically struggle with joint pain, maybe running isn’t a realistic goal for you and walking on the treadmill is more your speed. If you’ve always had your eye on those Zumba classes at your local gym, then signing up for a few classes a week may keep you committed. Whatever it is, decide what type of lifestyle will make for an easy transition, and begin slowly incorporating it into your daily routine.
If you were to interview any distance runner about their secret to a successful race, they’d all give the same secret: I pace myself. The same applies to you. No matter your goals, it’s imperative that you start small and work your way up to a winning pace, or in your case, a healthier lifestyle. Did you only make it to the gym once this week? If you’re up from zero times last week, that’s a win! Did your fitness tracker say you took 4,000 steps today? If you took 3,999 yesterday, that’s a win. In addition to setting realistic goals for yourself, start with small victories. Many seniors, regardless of where on the “senior” spectrum you fall, need to adjust to a healthier, fitter lifestyle, and it takes time. But every step in the right direction counts.
Joining a gym is a small, but meaningful step. Signing up for their aerobics classes is another big step. Coordinating with a trainer who can help you understand movements is an even bigger step. Before you know it, you won’t even need to set goals; an active lifestyle will become the norm for you, and you’ll see the fruits of your labor in the form of a healthy heart, alert mind, and overall improved health.
Richmond native Ron Harris has made exercise the norm for him, visiting his local YMCA six days a week. He alternates between the treadmill, elliptical, and stationary bike, and even takes the gym’s cycling class on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with his daughter and wife, who’s also retired. He plays basketball with the YMCA’s youth, and on select days, does light weight-lifting. A 64-year-old retired firefighter with the Henrico Fire Department, he’s seen first-hand the benefits of working his way up to a physically fit lifestyle.
“I’m not on any medication,” he boasts. “I don’t have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or any of the other diseases we African Americans are prone to getting.”
Another benefit, Harris finds, is that when you’re retired, you decide when to exercise. Knowing you can go to the gym whenever you’d like puts you in the driver’s seat of your fitness journey.
Make it fun.
If you’ve got a child, spouse, or friend who will jump on the fitness train with you, bring them along! Having an accountability buddy not only keeps you honest and committed to your workouts, but it removes the dread associated with exercising. Once you’ve got your partner, you’ll find that exercise becomes exponentially more enjoyable. Use your neighborhood walks as a time to catch up on life’s events. If you’ve got fitness trackers, host a weekly competition, comparing steps taken, calories burned, or miles walked. Challenge each other to set new goals each week and give small rewards to the winners.
If you’ve joined a gym, take a look at the schedule to see what fun, new classes they’re offering. Richmond’s YMCA locations offer dozens of classes that appeal to all fitness levels, all interests, and all ages. Classes like Gentle Cardio provide a low-impact cardiovascular exercise using a chair, which appeals to members with limited mobility. Classes like PiYo provide a fun combination of Pilates and yoga, while Cycle offers a higher intensity workout using a stationary bike. The YMCA prides itself on providing a well-rounded fitness experience that keeps all members, especially their retired and elderly population, highly engaged. As you begin your fitness journey, explore your options and allow yourself to make this new chapter an exciting one.
Find exercise opportunities in unconventional activities.
Did you know that an hour of raking leaves burns anywhere from 350-450 calories? Mowing the lawn also burns around 350 calories an hour. You may not realize it, but there are countless ways to incorporate more physical activity in your day-to-day tasks without it actually feeling like exercise. If you need to go shopping, park further away from the store’s entrance for those extra yards of walking. Choose to take your dog out for more walks than usual, or get your holiday shopping done at the mall instead of online. Finding opportunities to be active that don’t include the gym ensure that this healthy lifestyle you’re embarking on is both sustainable and again, realistic.
Harris found that adopting these tactics has led to an all-around more enjoyable life.
“As I get older, it feels good to know that because I’m getting in exercise all week long, I have the immune system, muscle strength, and endurance to really enjoy life with my family,” he says. “And that’s what’s really important to me.”
As you embark on your post-retirement lifestyle, plan ahead. Prepare to be unmotivated. Prepare to be tired, inconvenienced, and to want to quit. It’s only with preparation that you can defeat the obstacles and be your healthiest self. After all, your life depends on it.