April 21, 2020

Get fit at any age

Two people holding hands, walking next to a lake

When it comes to physical activity, there is truth to the old adage "you're only as old as you feel."

While our bodies may change with age, the more physically active we are, the more we can minimize the typical aches and pains that can develop over time.

That's not to say you should jump into training for a half-marathon at age 55 because it's always been on your bucket list. But, according to Karla Bock, UW Health exercise specialist, that's not to say you shouldn't try. Just be smart about it.

"My philosophy is that age is a mindset," says Bock. "You're never too old to start being physically active." And while it can be easy to be skeptical, Bock knows what she's talking about - she's an instructor at UW Health's Fitness Center. Her class? Senior Weight Training.

"I work with individuals in their 60s, 70s and even 80s who are physically active, robust and always up for a new challenge," she says.

Bock explains that around our 30s, our metabolism begins to change and our bodies don't burn calories as efficiently as they used to. Over time, strength decreases, as does mobility, flexibility, balance and even vision. But, those individuals who are physically active are able to maintain their physical well being longer and even help reduce their risk of diseases like Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease and more. For those that have led more sedentary lives, there's still hope.

"Consider your current physical activity level right now and start doing something to be physically active, even if it is just walking the dog regularly," says Bock.

For those who aren't routinely active, Bock recommends starting by incorporating activity into your daily routine — taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking on errands whenever you can, even standing on one foot at a time while washing dishes to work on balance. Little things can add up over time.

She also recommends thinking about things you enjoy doing, and starting slowly with just 15-20 minutes twice a week and building from there. In some cases, "feeling the burn" isn't always a good thing.

"If you wake up the next day unable to do your normal activities, that's usually a sign that you did too much. In addition to the risk for injury, the other issue is that you may not continue exercising. If you wake up feeling good, you're more apt to do it again."

Whether you're an experienced athlete, or looking for ways to increase your physical fitness, there are some considerations as we age, including:

  • Talking with your physician. Prior to starting any routine it is important to know if there are any concerns, and critical to keep the lines of communication open.

  • Warming up before exercising. As we age, it becomes more important to help get the body moving, and get the mental pathways awake and moving as well.

  • Listening to your body. As we age, our bodies may need longer periods of rest between exercise – whether that's a trip to the gym or a tennis match.

  • Knowing your history. If you have medical conditions or a history of injury, there may be certain precautions you need to follow in order to prevent complications.

  • Accommodating your changing body. Make sure your bike fits properly, particularly if you're prone to lower back pain. Invest in good running or walking shoes. Exercise in the daytime when it's easier to see obstacles in your path.

  • Recognizing your limitations. Exercises you did easily in your 20s may be challenging in your 40s or 50s. And that's okay. Be accepting of your body and find new ways to challenge yourself safely.

Bock is an advocate of strength training as it helps offers many benefits including increasing muscle strength and improving bone density. But the important thing, whatever your choice of activity, is to stay consistent and stay active. It's one of the best ways to live longer and healthier lives.