Staying active is one of the most important things you can do to maintain your health and well being as you age. Personal independence is a precious asset, which comes under ever-increasing threat as you get older.

Ill health frequently means a loss of independence and having to rely on others to do the things so many of us take for granted. When you are not well, you may need help with simple things such as driving, managing your finances, dressing yourself, and getting up stairs.

“Unfortunately, too many of us also take it for granted that our health will decline, and we give up on our bodies far too early in life,” says Dr. Lawren Hicks, MD, medical director of Senior Services for John Muir Health.

“We stop being physically active, our waistlines spread, our muscles atrophy, our joints consequently become unstable and develop arthritis, and our blood pressure and cholesterol begin to rise. The abdominal obesity causes insulin resistance that produces adult-onset diabetes, which puts us at ever-higher risk of heart attack and stroke — and loss of independence,” Hicks says.

A Half-Hour a Day

The American Academy of Family Physicians says it is safe for most adults over age 65 to exercise — even for people with chronic illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and arthritis. In fact, the academy says, many of these conditions improve with exercise.

There are many benefits to regular physical activity. Anyone can plug 30 minutes of exercise into their daily schedule, no matter how busy, if they give it the priority it deserves.

 “Half an hour a day of walking, swimming, cycling, or doing anything else you enjoy that makes you breathe hard and sweat will gradually begin to restore your muscle mass, which will keep you more steady on your feet, and prevent your falling and breaking your hip,” says Hicks.

Exercise also helps with maintaining a healthy weight by restoring muscle strength and increasing your metabolic rate.

“It will decrease your body fat content which will delay or prevent diabetes and lower your blood pressure, and you will feel so much better, both physically and mentally,” Hicks says.

Medical evidence is mounting that exercise may be beneficial to brain function as well, and could possibly stave off Alzheimer’s disease. In general, what’s good for the heart and other muscles tends to be good for the brain.

Types of Exercise

Before you start an exercise program, discuss it thoroughly with your doctor. If you have a chronic health condition, you should understand how it affects your ability to exercise safely.

If you are unable to do a half-hour of moderate exercise a day, then try to be as physically active as you can.

According to the National Institute on Aging, there are four main types of exercise seniors should get:

  • Endurance activities like walking, swimming, or riding a bike build muscle and improve the health of your heart and circulatory system.
  • Strengthening exercises such as weightlifting or using resistance bands build muscle, improve balance, and reduce age-related muscle and bone loss.
  • Stretching exercises like yoga keep the body limber and flexible.
  • Balance exercises: like tai chi reduce the chances of a fall.

So start making that investment of half an hour each day and get out for a swim or a brisk walk with a pair of good walking shoes. How brisk is brisk?

“I tell my patients to walk as if they’re late for a very important meeting. Walking like that, you should cover one and a half to two miles in that half hour.  If you can’t walk due to disability, exercising in a pool up to your neck in water is an excellent “weightless” alternative,” Hicks suggests.

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