Published On: Fri, Jan 4th, 2013

Start Moving Folks—it’s never too late!

The new way to go!

Mix up your routine to keep yourself motivated.

Start Moving Folks—it’s never too late!

-By Kristie Leong, M.D.

Is it ever too late to start exercising? Some middle-aged and older people believe exercise is only for the young and active – and once you reach a certain age you won’t get the benefits unless you started at a younger age. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are scores of people who didn’t lace up a pair of exercise shoes or pick up a hand weight until they reached retirement age – but they still reaped the benefits of an active lifestyle. Need some inspiration?

Exercise Has Benefits at Any Age

Tatsuo Okawara is a Japanese man who ran the Honolulu Marathon in 2007 at age 90. During his run, he walked briskly or jogged the entire 26.2 mile route, passing hundreds of other runners half his age!

And then there’s John Mendes, a New York City resident who ran the New York City marathon in 2010 at the ripe, young age of 90.  He didn’t take up running until he was in his mid-forties. These aren’t the only inspiring stories of seniors who dared to stay fit – so if they can do it – why can’t you?

Even a person who starts exercising late in life can still boost their aerobic fitness. Aerobic capacity is a measure of how well your heart and lungs transfer oxygen to cells during exercise. This is measured by having a person walk on a treadmill at gradually increasing elevations, while monitoring how much oxygen they consume. As the work load increases, oxygen consumption eventually plateaus, because their heart and lungs can no longer meet the body’s demand for more oxygen. This value is known as V02 max – and it’s a measure of how aerobically fit a person is.

The good news is–even if you start exercising in your sixties or seventies, you can boost your V02 max up to 20% by doing regular, cardiovascular exercise for as little as 20 to 30 minutes several times a week. Research shows that people with greater aerobic capacity have a reduced risk of developing “stiffness” in the arteries that supply their heart with blood, a condition that can lead to a heart attack. Regular exercise also reduces inflammation in blood vessels, which is a precursor to heart disease and a heart attack. Not to mention aerobic exercise raises levels of HDL, the “good” form of cholesterol that lowers the risk of heart disease! 

The Amazing Benefits of Exercise

You don’t have to run marathons to get the benefits of exercise. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers followed 9,500 older women in their sixties and seventies for twelve years. They discovered those who walked as little as a mile a day cut their risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer by more than a third. They also had an overall higher quality of life than women who remained sedentary.

According to one large study that looked at almost 33,000 people, men and women with low aerobic fitness were almost twice as likely to die from all causes compared to folks who stayed more active. In fact, being “out of shape” was a greater risk factor for death than other well-known factors such as hypertension, elevated lipid levels or carrying around too much weight. It pays to stay physically fit at any age.

How to Get Started if You’re New to Exercise

If you haven’t exercised in a while, or you’re over the age of fifty, see your doctor before beginning a fitness program. Once you get the okay, begin slowly – and don’t do too much too soon.  If you do, you’ll increase your risk of injury and muscle soreness.  Start out walking twenty minutes, three days a week, and increase your time by five minutes each week until you can walk at a brisk pace for an hour.

Once you’ve walked for a few weeks, pick up the pace by covering the same distance in a shorter period of time. Time yourself during your walk, and try to shave off a few minutes weekly. Challenge yourself even more by doing interval training. Walk at your normal pace for one minute, and then at the fastest pace you can for one minute. Alternate between fast and slow intervals for 20 minutes or more to challenge your cardiovascular system more.  Another way to increase your aerobic fitness further is by gradually adding hills to your walking routine.

Aerobic fitness is only one aspect of overall fitness – strength-training is another. Invest in hand weights or resistance bands and do 20 to 30 minutes of strength training at least three times a week. You lose muscle mass as you age, and this slows down your metabolism. It’s also one of the reasons older people become frail and have difficulty getting around.  If you don’t feel comfortable using weights, sign up for a class at your local YMCA.

What if you have joint problems from arthritis? Swim or take a water aerobics class. Swimming works every muscle in your body without stressing your joints. The well-known fitness icon Jack LaLane swam an hour a day into his nineties.

Mix up your routine to keep yourself motivated. Walk a different route or sign up for a new class at the YMCA or an exercise club. Change the type of music you listen to while exercising. Spend more non-exercise time doing something that requires more movement- like gardening – and wear a pedometer during the day to challenge yourself to take more steps. Pick up the pace when you’re shopping or running errands – and make a conscious effort to walk faster instead of just ambling along.

Get Started Now!

It’s never too late to start exercising, and you’ll still get health benefits whether you’re 29 or 89. So, what’s stopping you?

New York Times. “After 90 Years, What’s Another Marathon?”
Journal of the American Medical Association. 1996; 276:205.
Web MD. “It’s Never Too Late to Start Exercise”




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