Employee & Community Health

Physical activity: The 'secret' to healthier aging

4/2/2018 by Dr. Ericka Tung

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Psst. I have a secret to share with you. Getting and staying physically active will help you keep healthier and happier as you age. Actually, it's no secret. Researchers have been studying the aging/activity link for years and finding all kinds of reasons why it's so important to move our bodies. 

Just about anyone at any age can be physically active. You may need to modify what you do, but you'll still benefit in so many ways. Here are just a few of the bonus points physical activity will earn for your mind and body:

  • Being able to accomplish everyday tasks
  • Reducing stress
  • Fending off falls and injuries
  • Reducing the risk of cognitive issues
  • Increasing strength, stamina and overall feeling of well-being
  • Reducing the chance of developing a chronic condition
  • Improving outcomes for a chronic condition — according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), four of the five most costly chronic conditions in adults 50+ years old can be prevented or managed with physical activity 
  • Feeling more energetic and motivated
  • Making new friends and connections

Physical activity can be anything from sweeping the kitchen floor to walking the dog to taking a tai chi or water fitness class. While there's no right or wrong exercise, health-promoting activity should include each of these elements:

  • Endurance. This is the activity that raises your heart rate and makes you breathe harder. Try to build up to 30 minutes most days of the week. There's nothing wrong with starting with five minutes and working your way up — or breaking that 30 minutes into 10-minute chunks. Examples are: walking, swimming, water aerobics, biking, dancing, housework, mowing the lawn, climbing stairs. 
  • Strength training. This is weight-bearing activity that builds muscles and strengthens bones. Examples: resistance bands, getting out of a chair without using your arms, weight lifting (try soup cans for starters), carrying in the groceries, climbing the stairs. 
  • Balance. Good balance, which relies in part on abdominal, back and leg strength, is critical to preventing falls. Activities that support these areas include: tai chi, yoga (chair, gentle, restorative), water fitness. Give this chair rise exercise from the CDC a try. 
  • Flexibility. This is simply stretching your muscles and joints. Stretching should be done when your muscles are warm, such as after you've done an endurance activity. Yoga is one option, but also talk with your care team about simple stretches you can do at home standing by the kitchen counter or sitting in a chair. 

The secret to getting and staying active

  • Do choose an activity you enjoy now or enjoyed in the past, such as dancing (with a partner or just by yourself in the living room!), swimming, biking, cross-country skiing, gardening, playing ping-pong or pickleball. Whatever you do should be fun and something you want to keep doing. 
  • Do set achievable goals, both short- and long-term. Do reward yourself for reaching them! A short-term goal may be walking around the block. A long-term goal may be walking a mile. 
  • Do join a class. In Rochester, the YMCA and 125 Live Center for Active Adults offer a wide-range of low- and no-cost classes for members. Also, check out Rochester Parks and Recreation for classes and activities, as well as community education programs. 
  • And did I mention, do make it fun!

Dr. Ericka Tung is an internist and geriatrician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Primary Care Internal Medicine (PCIM). She practices across the community in clinic, skilled-nursing facilities and home-care based settings. She also directs the Mayo Clinic Geriatric Medicine Fellowship training program.