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Donít Take It Easy-Exercise!



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Whether youíre 40 or 60 years old, you can exercise and improve your health. Physical activity is good for your heart, mood, and confidence. Exercising has even helped 80 and 90 year old people living in nursing homes to grow stronger and more independent. Older people who become more active--including those with medical problems--may feel better and have more energy than ever before.

Why Should I Exercise?

Staying physically active is key to good health well into later years. Yet only about 1 in 4 older adults exercises regularly. Many older people think they are too old or too frail to exercise.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Physical activity of any kind--from heavy-duty exercises such as jogging or bicycling to easier efforts like walking--is good for you. Vigorous exercise can help strengthen your heart and lungs. Taking a brisk walk regularly can help lower your risk of health problems like heart disease or depression. Climbing stairs, calisthenics, or housework can increase your strength, stamina, and self-confidence. Weight-lifting or strength training is a good way to stop muscle loss and slow down bone loss. Your daily activities will become easier as you feel better.

Researchers now know that:

  • Regular, active exercise such as swimming and running, raises your heart rate and may greatly reduce stiffening of the arteries. Stiff arteries are a major cause of high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease and stroke.
  • People who are physically active are less likely to develop adult onset diabetes, or they can control it better if they do have it. Exercise increases the bodyís ability to control the blood glucose level.
  • Regular activity, such as walking or gardening, may lower the risk of severe intestinal bleeding in later life by almost half.
  • Strength training, like lifting weights or exercising against resistance, can make bones stronger, improve balance, and increase muscle strength and mass. This can prevent or slow bone-weakening osteoporosis, and may lower the risk of falls, which can cause hip fractures or other injures.
  • Strength training can lessen arthritis pain. It doesnít cure arthritis, but stronger muscles may ease the strain and therefore the pain.
  • Light exercise may be good for your mental health. A group of healthy, older adults said they felt less anxious or stressful after exercising for one year.

What Kind of Exercise Should I Do?

Physical activity and exercise programs should meet your needs and skills. The amount and type of exercise depends on what you want to do. Different exercises do different things: some may slow bone loss, others may reduce the risk of falls, still others may improve the fitness of your heart and lungs. Some may do all three.

You can exercise at home alone, with a buddy, or as part of a group. Talk to your doctor before you begin, especially if you are over 60 or have a medical problem. Move at your own speed, and donít try to take on too much at first. A class can be a good idea if you havenít exercised for a long time or are just beginning. A qualified teacher will make sure you are doing the exercise in the right way.

It may take a little effort to make exercise a regular part of your life. Once you start, try to stick with it. If you stop exercising, after awhile, the benefits disappear.

One good way to stay active is to make physical activity part of every day. Thirty minutes of moderate activity each day is a good goal. You donít have to exercise for 30 minutes all at once. Short bursts of activity, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or walking instead of driving, can add up to 30 minutes of exercise a day. Raking leaves, playing actively with children, gardening, and even doing household chores can all be done in a way that can count toward your daily total.

Itís a good idea to include some stretching, strength training, and aerobic or endurance exercise in your exercise plan. People who are weak or frail, and may risk falling, should start slowly. Begin with stretching and strength training; add aerobics later. Aerobics are safer and easier once you feel balanced and your muscles are stronger.

Stretching--improves flexibility, eases movement, and lowers the risk of injury and muscle strain. Stretching increases blood flow and gets your body ready for exercise. A warm-up and cool-down period of 5 to 15 minutes should be done slowly and carefully before and after all types of exercise. Stretching can help loosen muscles in the arms, shoulders, back, chest, stomach, buttocks, thighs, and calves. Itís also very relaxing.

Strength training (also called resistance training or weight-lifting)--builds muscle and bone, both of which decline with age. Strengthening exercises for the upper and lower body can be done by lifting weights or working out with machines or an elastic band. It is very important to have an expert teach you how to work with weights. Without help, you can get hurt. With help, older adults can work their way up to many of the same weight-lifting routines as younger adults. Once you know what to do, simple strength training exercises can be done at home. For beginners, household items, such as soup cans or milk jugs filled with water or sand, can be used as weights.

Strength training activities do not have to take a lot of time; 30 to 40 minutes at least two or three times each week is all thatís needed. Try not to exercise the same muscles two days in a row.

Sample Strength Training Plan

(Always check with your doctor first. Work with a qualified teacher to make sure you are doing the exercise right.)

  1. Start with a weight you can lift without too much effort five times.
  2. When you can easily do that, lift it five times, rest a few minutes, then do it again. (This is two sets.)
  3. Increase to three sets.
  4. When you can easily do that, lift the weight 10 times in each set.
  5. When you can easily do that, lift the weight 15 times in each set.
  6. Once thatís easy, slowly increase the weight.

Aerobic exercises (also called endurance exercises)--strengthen the heart and improve overall fitness by increasing the bodyís ability to use oxygen. Swimming, walking, and dancing are "low-impact" aerobic activities. They avoid the muscle and joint pounding of more "high-impact" exercises like jogging and jumping rope.

Aerobic exercises raise the number of heart beats each minute (heart rate). Itís best to get your heart rate to a certain point and keep it there for 20 minutes or more. If you have not exercised in awhile, start slowly. As you get stronger, you can try to increase your heart rate. Aerobics should be done for 20 to 40 minutes at least three times each week.

How To Measure Your Heart Rate

Your heart rate tells how many times your heart beats each minute. The maximum heart rate is the fastest your heart can beat. Exercise above 75% of that rate is too much for most people. You can figure out the number of times your heart should beat each minute during exercise (your personal "target" heart rate), with the following guidelines and just a little bit of math.

Look for the age category closest to your age in the table below and read the line across:


Target Heart

Rate Zone



Heart Rate













For example, if you are 60 years old, your target zone is 80-120 beats per minute.

When you begin your exercise program, choose the lowest level in the zone closest to your age and keep your heart rate at that level for the first few months. As you get into better shape, you can slowly build up to a higher level.

To see if you are within your target heart rate zone, measure your heartbeats right after exercising. One good way is to place the tips of your first two fingers on the inside of your wrist, just below the bottom of your thumb. Count your pulse for 10 seconds and then multiply by six to find the number of beats per minute. If you are below your target zone, you may want to exercise a little harder next time. Slow down if you are above your target zone.

Before starting any aerobics program, check with your doctor and ask about your own target heart rate. Some blood pressure medicines, for example, can affect how you figure out your target heart rate.

Helpful Hints

  • Choose activities that you like.
  • Make small changes so that physical activity becomes a part of each day.
  • Stop and check with your doctor right away if you develop sudden pain, shortness of breath, or feel ill.
  • Exercise with a group, with a buddy, or alone. Pick whatís easiest and most fun.
  • Be realistic about what you can do.


Local gyms, universities, or hospitals can help you find a teacher or program that works for you. You can also check with local churches or synagogues, senior and civic centers, parks, recreation associations, YMCAs, YWCAs, and even local shopping malls for exercise, wellness, or walking programs. Many community centers also offer programs for older people who may be worried about special health problems like heart disease or falling. Your local library may carry books or tapes about exercise and aging.

For more information, contact:

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Information Center
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD 20824-0105
(301) 251-1222

National Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NAMSIC)
1 AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892-3675
(301) 495-4484

American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)
Health Promotion Services
601 E. Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20049
(202) 434-2277

American Heart Association
National Center
Public Information Department
7272 Greenville Avenue
Dallas, TX 75231-4596
(214) 373-6300

American College of Sports Medicine
P.O. Box 1440
Indianapolis, IN 46206-1440
(317) 637-9200 ext. 117




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