As we age, we lose muscle mass and strength. This process is accelerated in persons who are not physically active. Physical activity keeps us healthier and living longer, while decreasing the risks of diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and dementia, to name a few. Any activity is better than none. It is also never too late to become physically active (even at the age of 85). The more active you are, the greater the benefit.
It’s not necessary to get a stress test before beginning an exercise program, although stress testing may be recommended if you have been sedentary and want to begin a rigorous exercise program. Having said that, it is always better to start an exercise program gradually and intensify as your body adapts to the new demands.
Exercise can be broken down into: 1) aerobic activity, 2) muscle strengthening, 3) flexibility, and 4) balance.
- Aerobic Activity: A MINIMUM of 30 minutes every day is your goal. Examples of aerobic activity include speed walking, jogging, running, swimming, bicycling or using similar cardio equipment. This does not have to be done all at the same time. For example three 10-minute sessions during the day will provide the same aerobic benefit as a 30-minute session. If you want to lose weight, you will likely need to increase this exercise to 60-90 minutes daily.Your target heart rate is 85% of your maximum heart rate, which varies by age and is calculated as 220 minus your age.
When beginning an exercise program, aim first for 50% of your maximum heart rate for the first few weeks. By six months into exercising, you should be able to exercise comfortably at 85% of your maximum heart rate. If you are unable to have a full conversation or feel lightheaded, slow down to a lower heart rate. If your heart rate is at 100%, then you are straining — slow down.
You may not be able to achieve these heart rates if you are on cardiac medications such as beta-blockers. A substitute marker of a good level of exercise is when you notice a moderate increase in your breathing and heart rate.
- Muscle strengthening: Sessions should be done on two non-consecutive days of the week, approximately 20 minutes each, and target 8-10 major muscle groups. Your goal is 10-15 repetitions of each activity, while gradually increasing the resistance (weight) over time.
- Flexibility: Stretch twice a week for 10 minutes, ideally after aerobic or strengthening activities when your body is warmed up. Hold each stretch at the point that you feel a good pull (not pain) for 10-30 seconds.
- Balance: More important for older adults, this includes activities such as tai chi, heel-to-toe walking or standing/hopping on one foot.
A helpful website for more information on the above is Go4Life, an exercise and physical activity campaign from from the National Institute on Aging at NIH, found at go4life.niapublications.org/