Exercising through the years

Staying active in middle age and beyond has its challenges – joint pain, aching muscles, total body stiffness the day after a hard workout. There is the fear of injury, the challenge of exercising with a chronic illness, finding the time and finding the motivation.

But regular exercise is also one of the best ways to stay healthy as the years roll by with benefits that include weight, blood pressure and cholesterol management. Exercise has also been shown to improve mood and sleep. It’s even been shown to slow memory loss.

But there are some caveats to exercise that come along with age.

I’ll illustrate with a dog anecdote. I often take my six-year-old Italian Spinone on long walks. Louie is a large hunting breed and can walk for miles. Our other dog, Dash, a spunky Havanese, is nearing 14 and slowing down but he doesn’t want to miss out on the fun. To compromise, I’d take a short walk with both dogs, drop Dash back home and continue on for a few more miles with Louie – but I knew there had to be a better way.

So, I did what any responsible owner of an elderly dog does, and bought a dog-stroller. I reasoned that I could pop Dash in the stroller when he started getting tired, give him a chance to rest, and then pop him out to walk a bit more. Kind of like interval training – but for dogs.

On one such walk with my husband and both dogs, Dash seemed exceptionally energetic and so he didn’t spend much time in the stroller. “He doesn’t need it,” said hubby. “Look at him go!” He seemed happy and energized as his short little legs worked overtime to keep up.

The next day, he was pooped, spending more time than usual lounging on the sofa and dragging along on the shortest of strolls. There are days I can relate to Dash’s exercise enthusiasm and resulting aches and pains. I’ve also learned that getting older isn’t an excuse to put off exercise, but a challenge to exercise differently.

Exercise comes easy for some and is a challenge for others. There are those who excelled in multiple sports in high school and even college, while others still have nightmares about the presidential fitness test and dread breaking a sweat.

Dash gets a lift while Louie gets in the miles

I’ve always enjoyed sports and exercise. I ran track in high school, was a swimmer and diver, and even competed in gymnastics. I was a pretty average athlete, but I developed a lifelong love of exercise. Over the years, I took up various recreational sports; tennis, cycling, golf, etc. In my late thirties, I joined a gym and then became a group exercise instructor.

In my years of teaching, I’ve seen amazing progress from the self-professed “unathletic” and have watched as participants became more confident and developed a passion for exercise later in life. Some even became instructors themselves.

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about how aging impacts how we exercise. Our bodies just aren’t the same at 60 as they are at 20. Which isn’t to say we can’t still do amazing things. There are those who run marathons and compete in triathlons well into their 70s and even 80’s.

Many “older” cyclists regularly compete in grueling, day long competitions. There are endless inspiration stories about older citizens accomplishing physical feats that boggle the mind. I am in awe of those seemingly ageless athletes. They are an inspiration for sure – but many of us aren’t quite so resilient and have adapted to kinder, gentler fitness regimes.

An outdoor yoga class with friends

I’ve learned ways to modify my own exercise routine and still get results. Long walks, hikes and bike-rides. Less high impact cardio and more Yoga and Pilates. My focus is on maintaining strength, balance and flexibility. I still challenge myself, but I know when it’s time to take a day to rest and recover. After suffering through a number of over-use injuries, I’ve learned my lesson.

It also helps to know that you’re not alone dealing with injuries and setbacks. I was recently leading a zoom exercise class when a participant mentioned she’d hurt her hip and would be missing that day’s work out. Within seconds, others in the group piped in with concern, advice and encouragement.

The incentives to exercise evolve with the years. I don’t exercise to fit into a smaller size or to look good in a swimsuit. That ship has sailed. It’s an added bonus to look fit, but the multiple health benefits are what keeps me moving these days. That, and  I’d like to be crushing it on the pickle-ball court twenty years from now!

In what’s becoming a long fitness journey, I’ve met many friends and acquaintances who share the goal of staying active and healthy well into old age. Many have overcome injury, illness and countless other challenges along the way. They share some of their exercise tips and routines below.

“I lift weights and try to walk 10,000 steps a day.” – Ellen Schmidt

“I exercise first thing in the morning. I find if I don’t do it then, I am less likely to do it later in the day. For me it’s about trying to maintain the best health/fitness level that I can as I age.” – Rebecca Nef Heffernan

“When you find a friend or community with similar goals of getting/staying fit, it makes it easier. I teach some fitness classes at a senior center and it’s amazing how they look forward to the social aspect. I have some 70–80-year-olds!” – Felicia Greenwood

“80% of my effort is in the kitchen. It’s the hardest part. 20% is flexing my muscles with weight training 3-4 times a week. Not getting injured is my toughest challenge.” – Don Kermath

“I belong to a gym and take the Silver Sneakers classes. This keeps me on track because I have a specific day and time to work out – and the instructor keeps me motivated.” – Susan Holleman

“I love cycling and working out at the gym. I try to sign up for events that scare me a little. It forces me to get ready and train with a deadline. Age is not an issue until you start using it as an excuse for not reaching your goals.” – Helmut Raether

“I have the best exercise partner and we go every morning together. When you know you have to meet someone, you do it!” – Christie Ramshaw

“I work out at home four days a week. The challenge is finding what brings you joy, once you do, you’re more committed to exercising. Of course, there’s the aches and pains, being more careful to avoid injury and trying new things to get the results you want.” – Maria Palmer

“I work out at home five days a week and I have to remember sometimes that I’m I my 60’s and not my 20’s. I don’t want to injure myself!” – Jan Hunt Fisher

“I went back to teaching a 5:45am cycle class.” – Cathy Murphy

“I find exercise classes and fitness activities I enjoy and I work out with friends. Workouts should be pleasurable and fun and not too difficult. I also try to walk instead of using a cart when golfing.” – Randi Lundstedt

Whatever your fitness goals or exercise routine, your body (and mind) will thank you for the effort. Here’s to staying active at any age.

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