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Outside the Box: Exercise is great for your brain and your body — how to do it right as you age


Regular exercise promises a double dose of gratification for retirees.

First, it satisfies the need to keep busy and socialize (as long as you exercise with others). Second, physical activity promotes health and wellness.

The trick is finding the right balance between exertion and injury. Doctors will tell you not to push yourself too hard, but when you’re in the zone it’s sometimes hard to ease up.

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Speaking of doctors, check with your primary-care physician before starting an exercise routine. Discuss your sleep patterns, medical history and any prescription drugs you take. Your doctor may suggest certain types of exercise and warn against riskier activities.

“It’s important to start gradually, especially if you haven’t exercised in a long time,” said Lyndon Joseph, Ph.D., a program officer at the National Institute on Aging’s Division of Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology. “Go at a pace that’s comfortable for you.”

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Try the “talk test” to track your intensity level. As long as you can talk to someone (or out loud to yourself) without gasping for air, you’re operating at low to moderate intensity and that’s generally safer.

As you age, you may not drink enough water. Don’t wait until you’re hot or thirsty; it’s better to get in the habit of sipping water throughout the day.

“Make sure you’re well hydrated if you’re doing aerobic exercise,” Joseph said.

If you’re about to take a brisk walk or jog, you may avoid water for fear of needing to urinate when you’re far from a restroom. Instead, bring a water bottle and partake slowly and frequently, Joseph says.

“Don’t drink a whole bottle at once,” he said.

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Consider your shoes. In addition to comfort, confirm they are not too tight or rigid in the sole. Shoes that lack proper support and cushioning can contribute to shin splints and cause other injuries.

Taking up a healthy hobby—from tai chi and yoga to daily gym workouts—is a good start. But sticking with it matters even more.

If minor irritants or major concerns set in, you may decide to give up before the habit takes root. A better strategy is to brace for initial challenges and devise ways to overcome them. That may mean modifying your routine to maintain its appeal.

“The fear of injury is one reason older people stop exercising,” Joseph said. “They may start walking and get sore muscles or feel lightheaded,” which is understandable. But instead of taking steps (such as stretching beforehand or ensuring proper hydration) to prevent a recurrence of the problem, they give up for good.

Some retirees suspect that they are prone to tripping and falling. Whether or not they’re truly at higher risk, they develop a heightened sense of fear and wind up shuffling instead of walking.

“The more they shuffle, the more they increase their risk,” Joseph said. Seek a doctor’s advice on adaptations you can make to address fear of falling.

A hobby is only as good as the ongoing satisfaction you derive from it. So establish a routine that excites you and that you’re eager to sustain over time.

Regular exercise, within reasonable limits and under a doctor’s supervision, should not pose a significant risk of injury. Better yet, it’s going to enhance your mobility and strengthen your muscles. And fighting off bone loss from osteoporosis gets easier when you climb stairs or engage in other low-impact, weight-bearing activities.

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