Why it’s important to stay flexible and fit as older adults

Our flexibility, balance, endurance and strength declines with age. Do all you can to combat it.

Growing older brings greater wisdom and perspective. But it also brings aches and pains that come with an aging body. When I get up in the middle of the night for a trip to the bathroom, my body is stiff and tight. I hate to think about what I might look like as I take those first few steps.

The good news is that once I get going in the morning, my body warms up and moves more comfortably. But there’s no question about it — my flexibility, endurance and strength is declining. This is, despite the fact, that like many North Westerners, I’m reasonably active. I like to walk and bike, and I rarely let the rain stop me from getting outside.

I also go the gym to exercise several times a week, especially when the weather is particularly bad. I have my routine. But I do notice that instead of everything getting easier, it seems to be getting a little harder. Sometimes, I feel like a salmon swimming upstream.

To make matters worse, I have a sedentary job that requires sitting in a chair for many hours a day. This isn’t good for your body. It’s bad for your back, your legs and your glutes — all muscle groups that keep you moving in space. And the years of sitting on your butt don’t add up to greater comfort and ease. Our bodies aren’t designed for hours of inactivity. Our muscles and joints don’t appreciate it.

My aging aunt lived alone into her 80s. Over the years she became less and less active. One day she fell down and couldn’t get herself up. She was there for two days before anyone discovered she was lying on the floor in her apartment. I still think about how awful that must have been for her.

How can adults, as we move toward older age, stay as fit as possible?

Think functional fitness. I don’t aspire to run marathons into my 90s. But as I grow older, I do want to comfortably climb stairs, do my own laundry, go shopping, carry grocery bags, bend down and get up. This requires strength, flexibility and endurance.

I take the stairs whenever I can instead of the elevator. I don’t use the banister to pull myself up. When I get up from a chair, I don’t use my arms. I want my legs to be strong. As often as I can, I walk to the store, the post office or to my local coffee shop and leave my car parked in the driveway. Healthy adults over 65 should do 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. I also lift weights to help maintain muscle mass.

Local gyms, YMCA’s and senior centers have fitness programs designed specifically for older adults of all fitness levels, from chair exercises to water aerobics for those of us with arthritis. Group classes are especially motivating. It’s much more difficult to maintain an exercise program on your own.

Loss of abdominal strength often results in back problems. Maintaining abdominal muscle tone requires doing exercises that keep those muscles working. Group fitness classes make sure that we keep those muscles strong and flexible.

Think flexibility and balance. Lately, I spend more time stretching than I did in the past. I can see that my body needs the extra time lengthening those muscles groups that have shortened — legs, glutes, hips, shoulders and my torso. Studying and practicing tai chi chuan, a Chinese exercise for older adults, has helped me improve my balance. But I also take an opportunity to stand on one foot when I’m waiting in line, too. Everything helps.

Remember — if you don’t use it, you lose it.

Check out the The National Institute of Aging website at www.nia.nih.gov. It has fitness and health resources for older adults.

Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His Family Talk Blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.

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