CHICAGO – Once you fully accept the fact that physical activity is one of the most powerful factors affecting your health, ability and longevity, where do you begin? Getting started, without a doubt, is the hardest part.
The first step, always, is to consult your health care professional. In most cases, your doctor will encourage you to get active, but be sure to bring up any specific concerns you have about exercising in relation to your health.
Your doctor may caution against high impact activity, for example, if you have arthritis or other conditions affecting your joints. Make note of any activities to avoid in planning your new regimen.
Starting from scratch at 58
It may seem a little overwhelming if you’re starting from scratch. That’s how Sharon Conte of Chicago felt, too, when she realized at age 58 her inactivity was largely responsible for the debilitating health conditions she was experiencing.
With high blood pressure, high cholesterol, fibromyalgis and Grave’s disease, Conte got her doctor’s blessing to start moving. So she started with what she knew best: Dance.
For an hour each day, Conte simply danced to her favorite music. After three months, her condition had improved enough that she could stop using prescription pain medication and build on her new exercise routine.
Knowing where to start is a common problem, according to Chris Hylton, a certified personal trainer and owner of River West Family Fitness in Batavia, Ill.
“I think the hardest part as you get older is that you’re so used to doing nothing that it seems insurmountable,” he said. “The best thing you can do is try something out of the norm and get out of your comfort zone.”
Hylton, who works with people of all ages, believes that working with a trainer for at least a few sessions can get you off to a better start, while minimizing the risk of injury for those unfamiliar with various exercises or the use of machines. He also said that working with a trainer or in a group exercise setting can get you into a new situation, where you’re more likely to stick with the program.
If you choose to work with a trainer, let him or her know of your past experience, how long you’ve been away from formal physical activity, and any restrictions your doctor recommended.
Be clear that you want help in putting together an exercise routine you can do on your own. This is the fastest and most efficient way to get on track; future sessions can be scheduled to help you amp up your routine as your muscles and cardiovascular system adapt to the regimen and are ready for more.
If the cost of a trainer is out of your budget, there are other ways to find help getting started. Group strength-training classes, especially those designed for your age group or tailored for people with conditions you have, will teach some basic exercises and help you determine how much weight to use for each.
Another advantage of a class versus working alone in the weight room is that an instructor can correct any errors in your posture or movement.
You won’t be the first person to find reasons to skip a workout from time to time, especially in the first few weeks. But here are some thoughts to get you past the obstacles and to your workout on schedule.
Get comfortable being outside your comfort zone. Anything that takes us outside our comfort zone requires a commitment to keep going. When you worry about whether you’re doing exercises correctly, ask someone for instruction. If you’re afraid you’ll look silly trying to keep up with the moves in your new Zumba class, remember that more people went through the same learning curve.
If you’re thinking of skipping your calisthenics class because you can barely get through some of the exercises, remember that everyone there had to build up their strength and endurance just like you.
Be the master of your universe. As soon as you decide to become more fit, start building a new self-image. Find a photo of yourself from when you were fit, or even the body of someone else who is in shape and whose build is similar to yours. Paste a current picture of your face onto that picture, and post it where you’ll see it often. You want to plant the image of a healthier, fitter you at the deepest level of your consciousness.
Similarly, envision yourself going through your day with vim and vigor; engaging in active pursuits rather than sedentary ones; enjoying healthy foods instead of fattening treats. Make a playlist for your iPod with music that motivates and uplifts you; listen to it when you’re exercising, and any time your willpower wanes. You are the master of your future--and watch your life transform.
Manage your time. Squeezing an hour of exercise into an already full day might seem impossible, but time management is about priorities. If exercise can prevent or reverse some of the major diseases that threaten people in your age group, doesn’t that make it a priority? Commit to an exercise schedule that will help you meet your fitness goals.
Give yourself extra motivation. “Even the most disciplined, or addicted, exerciser needs to have something to look forward to that will keep the behavior going,” writes Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a researcher and professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
She explained, “Plan to do something enjoyable right after your workout so that the exercise becomes associated with this enjoyable activity. Of course, just having fun while you work out can be rewarding as well. If you’re a social person who likes to spend time after the workout talking to your gym buddies, this is a perfect way to mix the social with the physical benefits of exercise.”
Keep your energy high. If you think you’re too tired to work out, it might be a dietary issue. Eliminate or at least reduce most sugary snacks and drinks, and high-fat foods.
Eat fresh foods whenever possible, stick with lean sources of protein, and make sure you’re getting at least five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Protein and quality complex carbohydrates give you the energy you need to workout out and the protein your body needs to build muscle after the fact. Making sure to get adequate sleep each night is important, too.
Signs of change
Keep your eyes off the scale. Forget about the numbers. After a few weeks of exercise, you will have started building muscle, while losing fat at the same time. Don’t be surprised, however, if the number on the scale doesn’t change much at first. Muscle weighs more than fat, and the lost fat will seem to be offset by the weight of the new muscle. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so the stronger you become, the higher your metabolism will be.
In time, you’ll hold your body up straighter and notice your tummy has shrunk a bit. Your face will show signs of slimming down, too.
Before too long, you’ll notice your workouts don’t tire you as much as they did, and perhaps that you’re not experiencing as much muscle soreness. You’ll get through your day with more energy and have more stamina. These and other improvements are signs of your increasing health and level of fitness.
Now that you’re convinced that exercise will not only improve, but quite likely prolong your life, what are you waiting for? All you have to do is take that first step.
Get going 4 life
A good goal to use as the basis for your fitness plan comes from the “Physical Activity Guidelines,” published by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, and it’s “Go4Life” [http://go4life.nia.nih.gov/] website for older adults. For healthy, active adults of any age, the guidelines recommend the following:
• Aerobic activity at moderate intensity for 30 minutes per day, at least five days per week; or at high intensity for 15 minutes per day, five days per week. For more extensive health benefits, or if you already are fairly fit, increase the total time spent per week to 300 minutes (one hour per day) of aerobic activity.
• Resistance training to strengthen muscles at least two days per week. Strength training sessions should include all major muscle groups (shoulders, arms, chest, back, abs and legs).
• Adults of any age who have health conditions that limit their physical functioning should evaluate the intensity of exercise in relation to their present level of ability. As your body responds to exercise over time, your fitness level will improve and your capabilities will increase, allowing you to do more and work harder for greater benefit.
• Try breaking aerobic activity in multiple 10-minute sessions, if your fitness level requires it. As long as the total time spent in aerobic activity is 150 minutes per week, you will reap the same benefits.
• Adults over 65 should also incorporate exercise that improves balance, in addition to aerobic and strength building exercise.
These guidelines are considered the most essential level of physical activity. If you’ve been inactive for a long time, you may need to work up the recommended number of exercise sessions per week, or build up your endurance and strength before you can complete your workouts.
(Dawn Williams wrote a longer version of this story for Chicago's Senior News 50 and Better with support from the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.)