Exercise: The secret to more energy

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“Inactivity sneaks up on you,” says Austin Welsh, M.D., medical director at Tallgrass Creek, an Erickson Living community in Overland Park, Kans. “Some people think when they get older, it’s time to slow down, but they should do the opposite if they want to stay healthy.”

Numerous studies show the benefits of exercise on every aspect of your health, but many people procrastinate. “To illustrate that exercise can be just as helpful as taking medication, I give my patients a prescription for activity instead,” says Keith Veselik, M.D., director of primary care at Loyola University Health System and associate professor in the Department of Medicine at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “Having specific recommendations on paper can motivate someone to get moving.”

Proven benefits

Beyond the obvious reasons you should exercise, such as better heart health and diabetes control, physical activity helps in ways you might not consider. “Exercise gives you more stamina, muscle strength, and can help with prevention and treatment for diseases such as osteoporosis,” Welsh says. “We used to think that once bone was lost, it didn’t come back. Here at [Tallgrass Creek], we’ve seen some women actually increase their bone density by 4% to 5% by participating in resistance and strength-training exercises.”

“Aside from concerns about their physical health, many of my patients worry about developing dementia-related illnesses,” Veselik says. “Exercise, in fact, has been shown to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, and possibly vascular-related dementias. This could be because physical activity controls risk factors, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.”

A hidden consequence of inactivity

A major reason for weakness, fatigue, and difficulty with daily activities in your later years is a loss of muscle mass. “This condition is called sarcopenia,” Welsh explains. “If you haven’t been very active throughout your life, you may have lost up to 50% of your muscle mass by age 75. The process may begin as early as age 35.”

Why the loss of muscle happens is unclear, but sarcopenia puts you at risk for balance problems and falls. “It also may contribute to altered metabolism, heat and cold intolerance, and insulin resistance,” Welsh adds.

Get started on an active life

“An ideal activity program involves cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and flexibility,” Veselik says.

These three components may seem like a tall order. “You don’t have to jump in with both feet,” Welsh says. “Talk to your doctor first and figure out what you hope to achieve. Maybe you want to lose a few pounds or lower your cholesterol, but you have some limitations with regard to the type of activity you can tolerate. Either way, your doctor can get you started with a plan. There’s something for everybody, no matter how many health problems you have.

“Health professionals, including a physical therapist and occupational therapist, can suggest ways you can get fit that are safe for your particular health condition or conditions,” he adds. “If you feel intimidated by the equipment in a fitness center, they can guide you.”

No matter where you live, you can find something to do. If you don’t live near a fitness center, you can start walking at a mall or outside for the cardiovascular portion of your program. You may still need a physical therapist’s advice to help you learn other components of an exercise program. “Strength training and flexibility exercises are crucial to muscle strength and bone health,” Veselik says. “You don’t need a machine for resistance exercises, and you can work on flexibility and balance by participating in a yoga class or tai chi.”

Keep it interesting

“Trying new things such as water aerobics, chair aerobics, or stretching and toning classes can prevent boredom,” Welsh says. “At Tallgrass Creek, we had a walk-a-thon to benefit a charitable organization. Our residents and staff had a great time and walked several hundred miles.”

Walking with a buddy or group keeps you going. “It’s more enjoyable to talk with people and know you are all pursuing the same goal,” Welsh says. Having a pet helps too. “Even if your buddy can’t go along one day, your dog will likely remind you that it’s time for a walk.

“What motivates one person won’t motivate another,” Welsh adds. “Measuring progress helps some people. When they see their cholesterol numbers slowly improving, for instance, they want to keep going.”

Be safe

Start slowly and work your way up to avoid injury. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate to brisk activity each week. “That may seem like a lot, but if you break it down to 20 to 30 minutes a day, it’s manageable,” Welsh says.

If you encounter pain or other problems while exercising, see your doctor. You might need to modify your program. “If you are recovering from an illness or surgery, your doctor will help you decide what type of activities are safe,” Welsh says. “You need to inform your doctor about which medications you are on as well because some medications can interfere with how your body responds to exercise.”

Drugs for your heart and blood pressure may affect how your heart functions during exercise. These medicines along with antidepressants, antianxiety agents, and sedatives may lead to dizziness during activity, and diabetes medications might need to be adjusted to keep blood sugar levels steady.

Perseverance is key. “You can’t fix everything in a few weeks, but after you ease into an exercise regimen, you’ll notice a difference in how you feel,” Welsh says. “Activity helps you have more energy and feel less fatigued, and that’s a good enough reason for many people to keep at it.”

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