Exercise is the Key to Healthy Aging

I originally planned to call this post something else and to organize it differently, but as I began to think about my advice for mitigating the changes of aging the advice was the same again and again.  

Exercise is the Key to Healthy Aging.

When we consider what it means to age well, we are really talking about the quality of life we experience when we are older.  How mobile are we able to be?  Can we travel? Can we indulge from time to time in the food and drink we enjoy? Can we enjoy spending time with our grandchildren?  Can we continue working? 

For women, the loss of estrogen we experience with menopause increases our risk for a whole host of diseases. Whether we age well, or not, is often directly related to whether we suffer from these diseases.   The diseases I am thinking of include heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, breast cancer and dementia to name a few.  

If we take these diseases individually, there are often changes we can make in our 40s and 50s that will help us avoid developing these diseases.  But, assuming you are not a smoker, the one thing you can do that will help you avoid all these diseases and more is…you guessed it, exercise.  

What about exercise is so beneficial?  Exercise can lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol, helping to ward off heart disease and stroke.  It improves insulin sensitivity and helps  us to maintain a healthy weight, decreasing the risk for diabetes.  Both aerobic exercise and lifting weights put healthy stress on our bones improving and maintaining bone density.  Several studies of exercise suggest that dementia is less likely in those who exercise. And a number of studies suggest that those who engage in moderate exercise have decreased risk for a number of cancers including breast cancer.  And I haven’t even touched on the mental health benefits of exercise.

Many of my patients tell me they don’t formally exercise, but they are active chasing kids etc.  So, what really counts as exercise?  

When it comes to resistance training, when you are exercising and when you are not is more clear.  Resistance training does not have to include a trip to the gym.  Using your own body weight, or an inexpensive, easy to store, set of resistance bands can do the trick.  The key is to build in 2-3 sessions per week, ideally not back to back.

With aerobic exercise it can be less clear what counts.  Moderate exercise is considered to be 150 minutes per week of exercise that increases your heart rate, such that you can talk, but can’t sing. There does seem to be a benefit to splitting this exercise up over 3 or more days.  But you don’t have to exercise for 50 minutes 3 times per week.  You could exercise as little as 10-15 minutes 10-15 times per week and still reap the benefits.  That means that a brisk walk to or from the train or bus stop, or around the block after lunch counts and those little chunks of time add up.  

How is a busy woman with a million competing demands to fit this in?  Everyone is different, but this is how I personally get it done:  

Aerobic exercise: I run/walk for 45 minutes 3-4 days per week (typically Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday).  Once a week I may substitute playing tennis with my son (he definitely keeps me running) or taking a tennis clinic.  I schedule my exercise like any other appointment in my calendar and I make sure my husband is aware of my plans or that I have other childcare arrangements made (teenage kiddos make this much easier).

I try to add things to make it enjoyable.  Once a week I walk with a friend, I talk on the phone with my mom or sister, or I listen to a favorite podcast.  Because I have chosen to do almost all my exercise outdoors, I have invested in clothing to keep me comfortable in all weather including wool running socks, rain pants and a couple different weight jackets.  

Weight Lifting:  I work in 2-3 20-30-minute sessions per week, typically on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.  I do a mix of upper body and core strengthening with an online yoga class thrown in about 3 times per month.  I do all of this at home with a small set of free weights, exercise bands and a yoga mat.  I use an ottoman as a makeshift weight bench.  

I think of exercise as an investment I am making in me, my future health and my future well-being and I hope you will do the same.    

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