Steamboat Springs We've all heard that life begins at 40, but increasing numbers of senior citizens are learning that a life of fitness and health can just as easily begin at 65 or even 90. Exercise is the key to living well in the golden years.
Without exercise, fat displaces muscle and muscles begin to grow smaller and weaker. Sedentary people gain weight more easily, putting added stress on the heart, lungs, weight-bearing joints and back; each 10 pounds of extra weight exerts up to 100 pounds of pressure on the back.
But the human body has amazing powers to rejuvenate itself when properly conditioned through regular exercise. Joints work better when they are strengthened through exercise, and the lungs, heart and vascular system also benefit. Exercise can rebuild and repair bone, preventing osteoporosis and potentially life-threatening fractures.
Lucy MacGregor believes in the power of exercise. The 74-year-old Steamboat Springs resident enrolled in a two-month senior balance and exercise class at Yampa Valley Medical Center in March and quickly saw improvement.
"I really liked the low-impact aerobics," she said. "The balancing exercises have helped me a lot. It's much easier to climb stairs, carry things and turn suddenly."
Lucy liked the fact that the classes were specifically "geared to us older people." Instructors "told us why we were doing things and what we would gain from them, so it was very educational," she said.
Since classes ended in April, Lucy has been putting her newfound knowledge to work.
"I'm doing some of the exercises that I learned and now that the weather is nice, I'm doing more walking. Thirty minutes is a good workout for me," she said. "I received a video by the Osteoporosis Association as a gift for Mother's Day, and I plan to use it."
An optimum exercise program combines weight training, stretching exercises and aerobic exercise. Joining a health club or class can help someone new to exercise learn correct techniques, but most exercises can be done at home or on the local trail system.
A goal of increasing muscle strength and decreasing pressure on joints can be achieved by exercising with weights for 20 minutes or more three times per week.
Weight training can be accomplished using inexpensive dumbbells or wrist or ankle weights.
At-home stretching exercises will increase cardio-pulmonary fitness and muscle strength and endurance. Ten minutes a day can markedly increase one's flexibility.
Aerobic exercise requires no equipment other than a good pair of athletic shoes. Weight-bearing exercise such as walking or low-impact aerobics should be done for 30 to 60 minutes at least three times a week. A good rule of thumb is to keep up a pace that increases the rate of breathing and causes a mild sweat during exercise.
Beginning exercisers should first see a physician for a physical exam. It's wise to avoid working out during hot weather or within two hours after eating. Don't overdo it; overexertion can lead to dizziness or disorientation, nausea, or cardiac problems.
Warming up and cooling down are key to avoiding lightheadedness and muscle cramping.
The rewards of regular exercise can be felt quickly and can last for a lifetime. "I definitely feel stronger, better balanced and clearer-headed," Lucy said. "I just have an overall feeling of well-being. It's much more than I expected in two months of exercising."
Christine McKelvie is the public relations director for Yampa Valley Medical Center.