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The importance of keeping fit as we age

By 2030 the fastest growing group of people will be those 85 and older, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. Adding years to our living should inspire all of us to think about adding quality of life to those years.

"Most people plan for financial independence. But too often, they neglect what they need to be physically independent," says Cedric Bryant, Ph.D., chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.

Although many seniors know the valuable gifts that exercise can offer, 85 percent of seniors do not commit to exercise on a consistent basis. They often share many of the same excuses as their younger peers. What better time than now — the beginning of a new year — to amend your ways.

"There is not a single system in the body that is not positively affected by exercise," Bryant says.

Here to help motivate you are five good reasons to become physically active as we travel through life. Exercise:

1 Reduces your risk of falling. Every year, one-third of the population over age 65 takes a spill. Both balance exercises and strength exercises for the lower body can help decrease the risk for falling.

Although balance and strength exercises can reduce fall-related fractures in healthy people, they could be contraindicated for seniors with functional limitations, so always check with your physician before beginning an exercise program.

For balance training exercises, you need to place your body in a slightly unstable position. Try standing on one leg and attempt to maintain your balance for 5 or more seconds. Walking three to four times a week for a half hour is a good start to develop strength in the leg muscles. Examples of lower-body strengthening exercises easy to do at home are calf raises (standing on balls of feet, raise and lower heels), leg extensions to the sides (slowly raise leg to the side as high as is comfortable for eight to 10 repetitions) and back leg extensions (repeat with leg to the back as far as is comfortable); use a support if needed.

2Increases bone density. Strong bones will help to keep you from being stooped over as you age, but the bones become weakened if you are not physically active. The spine is the most common site for a fracture, followed by the hips and wrists. Research from Tufts University shows that strength training can dramatically reduce the loss of bone mass, help restore bones and contribute to better balance and fewer fractures.

The ideal strength training program for your bones combines weight-bearing and resistance exercises, says Dr. Sharon L. Hame, an assistant professor in the department of orthopedic surgery at the UCLA Medical Center. The body's bone-building cells are stimulated when you perform weight-bearing exercises as both gravity and the muscles will place stress upon the bones.

Weight-bearing exercises include walking, jogging, climbing stairs and dancing.

You can select from a variety of techniques for resistance exercise: free weights, exercise machines, resistance bands, even your own body weight. The balance exercise of standing on one leg is an example of using your own body weight. As you balance, it causes you to contract the muscles, which stimulates the bone. Squats and lunges also use your own body weight as resistance and they strengthen your legs, buttocks and lower back.

3 Increases muscle mass. The 650 muscles in our bodies provide us with the strength to do everything we do, and if we don't strengthen them as we age, those muscles begin to lose their power.

Strength training will help you avoid the 5 to 7 pounds per decade of muscle loss typically experienced by adults over the age of 50 (Strength Training Past 50, Wayne L. Westcott, Thomas R. Baechle). Muscles are also responsible for burning most of the calories our bodies use, so with less muscle you will be burning fewer calories and storing more fat.

4 Increases flexibility. Aging, if sedentary, contributes to tight muscles as the tissue surrounding the joints thickens, causing them to become less elastic. Stretching will help keep the muscles loose, increasing your range of motion. Other rewards from stretching include improved balance and posture, which help to prevent falling. Several activities that encourage stretching are yoga, tai chi, Pilates, swimming, ballet and modern dance.

5 Reduces stress and feelings of fatigue. Exercise releases the "feel good" hormones (serotonin and dopamine) into your body that help to reduce stress. As exercising brings more oxygen into the bloodstream, it helps to energize you. People who exercise regularly have more energy, feel alert and have an increased sense of well-being and better memory retention. Energy begets energy!

If you are 50 or older and have not been exercising, check with your physician before beginning ANY exercise program. Sally Anderson, a trainer, is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. Write her in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

This month's exercise demonstrators are Carol and Bob Stewart of St. Petersburg. Carol, 70, is an interior designer who gets her exercise from cross-country skiing, water aerobics, strength training and playing golf with her husband. Bob, 71, recently retired from 25 years as an elected official in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. He enjoys golf and yard work and is preparing for the ski season in Colorado.

Seated leg extensions, pictured above, are a balance exercise that strengthens quadriceps (front of thighs) and hamstrings (back of thighs). Sitting on a ball with back straight, place feet about shoulder-width apart, putting hands on sides of ball for support. Contracting abdominals, extend one leg to knee height. Hold for eight to 10 seconds, repeat with opposite leg, repeating each leg four times. Tip: If you are advanced, balance on ball with arms extended to the sides. If hamstrings are tight, you will not be able to fully extend legs, just straighten to your personal level.

Cobra: The Cobra, pictured at right, increases flexibility and strengthens arms, chest, shoulders and back. Lying on a mat, place forearms on the floor, legs about shoulder-width apart. Inhale as you use back muscles to lift head and chest off the floor, holding for a few seconds. Exhale as you slowly lower to the floor. Advanced Cobra: Fully extend arms as you lift head and shoulders off floor. Tip: Continue to look forward, keeping front of hips and pelvis on the floor. Do not lock elbows with the advanced Cobra.

Double knee drops stretch hips, lower back and chest. Lying on a mat, begin with legs in a bent-knee position, parallel to floor. Extending arms to the sides, drop knees to one side, slightly turning head to opposite side. Take several deep relaxation breaths and repeat on opposite side. Tip: Relax arms with palms facing downward.

Balancing biceps and triceps is a balance exercise that strengthens the front of the upper arms (biceps) and the back of the upper arms (triceps). Biceps: Balancing on one leg with knee slightly relaxed, hold weights, palms facing upward. Elbows touching sides, without letting wrists curl inward, slowly curl weights toward shoulders, lower and repeat eight to 12 times. Balancing on opposite leg, hinge slightly forward from hips, palms facing inward. Triceps: Bend elbows, holding weights near chest. Bringing arms downward, extend arms behind you; return lower arms to the sides of your chest and repeat eight to 12 times. Tip: If you need help with balance, begin by using a sturdy support and strengthen one arm at a time.

The importance of keeping fit as we age 12/22/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 2:15pm]

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