-by Bill Plake-
Exercise is essential to the health and well being of people of all ages. And for older adults, regular, well-prescribed exercise has very particular, measurable benefits, as described in an article by the Harvard Medical School.
For older populations, exercise can help: Prevent disease (particularly chronic, metabolic conditions, like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension).
- Improve mental health
- Decrease risks of falls (especially important if you’re over 60!)
- Cultivate and enhance social engagement
- Improve cognitive function
I’ve stayed physically fit most of my adult life, having competed in triathlon and bicycle road racing, as well as regularly engaging in functional strength training activities. In fact, I earned a certification in personal training from the National Academy of Sports Medicine –NASM some years back, and continue to stay up to date in modern exercise science.
You’re never too old, nor too de-conditioned (“out of shape”) to begin an exercise program. But mindlessly jumping into an exercise program can be sub-optimal (at best), and harmful, or even life threatening (at worse).
In my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher, I regularly encounter people who make their condition worse, rather than better, from poorly prescribed and/or poorly executed exercise regimens.
So if you’re thinking about getting back in shape, here are six common mistakes to avoid in order to give yourself the greatest chance of success, both in results and in personal safety:
- Not getting a physician’s clearance-At any age, but especially if you’re over
40 and de-conditioned, this is where you should start before you hit the gym (or the road). Tell your doctor your intentions, so that she/he can give you a thorough exam and order any lab work you might need. Also, if you have any
musculoskeletal issues at all (back pain, neck or shoulder problems, etc.), make sure you mention it. Your doctor can then prescribe the comprehensive safety guidelines you might need to follow. Not doing this puts you at considerable risk, so please take this first step!
- Starting with the wrong type of exercise-If you’re completely out of shape,
starting with something super intense (like Crossfit, for example), is an invitation for injury. Avoiding injury is absolutely essential for successfully developing a regular exercise habit. So aim for less intensity in the beginning. Walking, swimming, light resistance training, gentle Yoga and Tai Chi are great places to start. As you build a base of fitness, you can progress to more intense forms of exercise. The main thing is that you engage in lots of safe and healthy
- Going too hard too soon-Even if you begin with exercise that is reasonably
“user friendly” for a newbie, see that you’re not doing too much, too soon. For
example, if you choose an activity like walking, be mindful of both intensity
(speed, steepness of grade, etc.) and volume (duration/distance). A good rule of thumb for the first few weeks of your program is to “tease” yourself into fitness, always feeling like you could’ve fairly easily gone a bit further, had you wanted (which you can then do the next day).
- Exercising incompletely-So what does it mean to be “fit”? For example,
cycling is a great way to improve cardiovascular fitness, but it does virtually
nothing for your overall body strength, flexibility, agility and trunk stability. To stay functionally fit as you get older, you need to exercise in a way that improves upon very particular components of your fitness: strength/muscle mass, balance, agility (the ability to change direction in space quickly), power (the ability to generate force quickly), cardiovascular endurance, strength endurance (the ability to sustain moderately intense effort) and more. So it’s okay to start with something “incomplete” (like walking), but don’t get stuck there. Make it your goal to branch out with the other kinds of exercise that address your complete fitness needs.
- Not altering other lifestyle components that support fitness-As you get
older, exercise places even more demands upon your body. See that you’re
getting enough rest (both sleep, and adequate breaks from exercise), modifying your diet, being mindful of hydration, etc. Understand that the stress of exercise itself actually weakens your body. It is with rest and proper nutrition that you gain the adaptations to those stressors that make you stronger and fitter.
- Not cultivating enjoyment-One of the key ingredients in sustaining an
exercise program over the long run is enjoyment. So as you begin to get more fit, experiment with different types of exercise and steer yourself toward the activities you most enjoy. When I used to race bicycles, I couldn’t wait to get out and ride!
It was a deeply satisfying experience! Also, making and deepening connections
with other people with whom you exercise will motivate you and challenge you to stay the course on your exercise journey.