Despite our cultural depictions of aging, we all have the ability to age well with the strength, agility and balance to maintain our quality of life and the activities we enjoy. Traditional exercise programs, and even many fitness professionals, often disregard the ability of mature adults and seniors to maintain and gain qualities like strength and agility.
Regardless of age, we should all make the time to move, exercise or play. Let's squash three myths that hold mature adults and seniors back from moving better:
1. You will hurt yourself
This myth implies that mature adults and seniors are too frail and weak to exercise, and moving will lead to injury.
That is a just plain wrong. Everyone starting a new exercise program should start off slow and set a foundation based on their current fitness level. Yes, consulting your doctor, getting your eyesight checked, being aware of the effects of medicines, etc. are important considerations. Lastly, it is important to recognize any physical restrictions based on past injuries or current mobility challenges. These are factors to be considered at any age when changing lifestyle or starting a new fitness program.
The key is to recognize these factors and develop exercise options based on this awareness. For example, if walking places too much strain on joints, Nordic pole walking is an excellent option. The poles facilitate an increase in oxygen consumption and energy expenditure by engaging the upper body instead of just the legs.
Contrary to this myth, improved fitness levels reduce the chance of injury. People with reduced mobility, tend to modify their movement based on fear or discomfort. Imagine walking on a narrow bridge over a swamp of alligators. How are you walking? Probably with shuffling steps in a hunched position. In this position, you have a narrow base of support, walking is challenging and uncomfortable, and catching yourself if you trip will be difficult. Now, imagine a beautiful walk on the beach. You are relaxed with a more comfortable and confident gait. With a better range of motion, posture and gait there is less of chance of injury or falls. Gait and balance issues are a major cause of injury in older adults.
One of the key contributing factors to reducing falls is exercise. Everyday life takes mobility, flexibility, balance, coordination, agility and power. Testing and training those functions in a proper fashion will lead to more confidence and ability to move throughout life with more ease.
2. It is too late to exercise or you’re too old for that
Nonsense! This myth is based on a limited and subjective definition of "exercise." Exercise does not have to happen in a big box gym, nor do you necessarily have to be wearing fancy exercise clothes. (Lose the leg warmers, tights and a headband – unless that’s what motivates you!)
Consider all the activities that can contribute to exercise and fitness. For example, building and tending to a garden incorporates squatting, lunging, digging, pulling, dragging, pushing, core strength, carrying objects and more. If you don't have the space (or interest) to be a neighbourhood farmer, then going for hikes, joining a rec league, Pilates, enjoying the social, mental and physical benefits of Tai Chi, or trying out some group exercise classes at a gym/pool are all great ideas. Have a favourite park or enjoy walking in your neighbourhood? Start there! Finally, if you do like the gym, shop around and find one at which you are comfortable. Independent gyms vary greatly. Find one you’ll enjoy and will continue going to rather than paying for a membership you will not use.
Find the exercise that fits your preference and lifestyle. Do something you enjoy.
3. Okay… exercise, but just take it easy
To counter this myth, Fred Devito summed it up with his quote “If it doesn't challenge you, it won't change you.”
Progress in fitness will only occur over time when you are challenged. Sure, it is important to start off light when you begin a new fitness program, but soon your body will adapt the exercise and you’ll hit a plateau. Progressions should be incorporated that continue to challenge you to move forward. My clients trust I will push them just enough so they continue to see the results of their hard work, but not to the point of injury or exhaustion.
Maintaining the right balance of challenge versus safe progression does not require a steep incline, instead the magic is in variability.
For example, if you enjoy walking on the treadmill, instead of going at the same pace for an hour, do intervals. Try five minutes at a comfortable pace, then two minutes at a challenging pace. Keep coming back to the comfortable pace to recover, then ramp up again to stay challenged. If you enjoy working with dumbbells, another simple variation to staying challenged is to vary your foot pattern. Instead of standing neutral (i.e. feet hip-width distance apart) try a staggered stance as though you’re midway through a walking stride, with one foot ahead of the other. Not only are you doing your curls, but you are also testing your balance and core strength. We move throughout life engaging multiple body parts simultaneously - so why isolate just one when we are exercising? Train for life!
Don't let these myths hold you back from living with the quality of life you want! There is no such thing as “too old to exercise.” A healthy fitness program means being able to play with the kids/grandkids, enjoying a good golf game, taking that trip of a lifetime, or maybe just getting around more easily and with confidence.
It is never too late to train to move better in your everyday life!
Damien A. Joyner is a professional trainer and Functional Aging Specialist. He owns Incremental Fitness. To learn more, visit incrementalfit.com
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