The most difficult thing about starting to exercise later in life is knowing how to start. It’s the same if you try to learn a new skill or engage in a new hobby for the first time. If you have nobody to teach you, how are you supposed to learn?
These days, you have all you need in the palm of your hand. You can use your smartphone to track your heart rate, listen to music, or even map out the route you take on your daily walks.
But today our focus isn’t on our devices; we’re going to talk about what can happen if you spend too much time on that device. Social isolation and a sedentary lifestyle can make you physically ill and kill you sooner than later. But there is a solution - and it involves real-world exercise and social engagement.
Depending on your current level of fitness, the best place to start is your primary care physician. As seniors are well aware, there are any number of aches and pains that might seem minor, but that may also be harbingers of chronic illness or disease. Once you’ve secured the go-ahead from your doctor that you are healthy enough to enjoy physical activity, you have some options.
Your local gym or YMCA. The “Y” is popular among older adults because of the variety of programs offered, the affordability of joining, and the non-profit mission to improve communities and the lives of the people who live in them.
Your physical therapist. The best part about starting physical therapy is that you’ll get focused, one-on-one attention from a professional who can help you practice specific exercises according to your individual goals. An appointment with your physical therapist shouldn’t replace the water aerobics class you do on Mondays, and that group fitness class shouldn’t replace your time with your PT.
The Internet. Nowadays, most seniors are fluent in the ways of the Internet. But beware: while there is excellent information to be learned, stay away from disreputable sources. Stick to clearly trustworthy organizations, like the Mayo Clinic or other university-based websites; the nonpartisan U.S. health entities like the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, or the National Institute on Aging; or most other websites with a Web address that ends in .edu or .gov.
For some seniors, changing the daily routine is a difficult task - especially if you need to rely on public transportation or you live in an area where a YMCA or gym isn’t convenient. But here’s the lesson to learn: if you don’t make the effort to start exercising somehow, you could die sooner and with more chronic health issues. It is incredibly difficult to get moving when you’re used to being still - especially if you suffer from a condition like arthritis or fibromyalgia. But you have to try.
According to a 2013 study, “physical inactivity is a common risk factor among all Americans, but is particularly problematic in older adults and brings with it an increased risk of many chronic diseases and other poor health outcomes.”
There are numerous clinically-proven benefits to your body and your mind when you are engaged in a physical fitness program in your later years. If you think that exercising and being active is too much to do alone - you might be right. As it turns out, being alone is potentially worse for your health than avoiding exercise.
Exercise doesn’t have to be a solitary endeavor. In fact, seniors who exercise with the company of their peers are proven to live longer with a higher quality of life. You can join an exercise class, an outdoors hiking or walking group, or take up an active hobby like birdwatching or volunteering for Meals on Wheels.
When you exercise in a group, you’re not only watching and learning from more experienced people, but you’re joining a social network and that alone can help you stave off a litany of issues, such as high blood pressure, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.
Think about that - not only can physical exercise improve your day-to-day functioning and help you live a healthier life, but the same is true for being socially active. Getting out into the community - going food shopping, attending government committee meetings, that weekly Sunday morning seniors-only political discussion group at McDonald’s - all of these things help keep your mind in tip-top shape and can even ward off horrible chronic illness.
Now that you know that being socially active is just as important as being physically active, why not combine the two? Joining a socially-focused exercise group at an older age is easier than ever. Have you heard of the SilverSneakers program? SilverSneakers is a nationwide fitness network - nearly 16,000 locations around the United States - and the cost is included with most Medicare plans as well as some private insurances.
The goal of SilverSneakers is to provide an easy, affordable, and effective way for seniors 65 years and older to connect to a gym, find fitness classes, and even make friends and find trainers who can help you on your fitness journey.
Talk to your physical therapist to learn more. You don’t need to be a lifelong fitness expert to get fit at an older age - you just need a little help from your friends.