Fitness after age 55 is easier than you think and the benefits are significant: Increased vigor. Alertness. Ample energy to enjoy your leisure time, to travel or to play with your grandchildren. Fitness is tied to longevity and according to experts, you’re likely to enjoy a more satisfying sex life.
If that’s not enough, fitness also plays a preventive, protective role.
“If you’re fit, you’re more likely to avoid falling,” said Javier Rios, a Primary Care Sports Medicine Physician at Houston Methodist, who is committed to getting his sedentary patients up and moving. “If you do fall, you’re more likely to avoid fractures and recover more quickly.”
Rios sees many patients 55 and older with chronic conditions such as back pain, knee pain and arthritis. Too often, these conditions lead to a sedentary lifestyle when patients actually need to be moving, he said.
Rios has seen such patients start prescribed physical activity and within a few weeks, feel much better.
“Physical activity releases endorphins that help relieve anxiety and tension,” he said. “Patients with depression also begin to see improvements.”
The kind of exercise program that works best for people over 55 depends on the individual, their health conditions, and what they enjoy.
“There is no one size fits all,” Rios said. “Just this month, the Frenchman Robert Marchand, who is 105, set a new cycling record. So what you can do depends on who you are and how motivated you are.”
The best reason to exercise is that people feel better when they do, said Jim Goodwin, a University of Texas Medical Branch professor and an expert on aging.
“For the last million years as we’ve been evolving, the species has been very active and stayed very active until recently,” Goodwin said.
Now, most of us spend our days sitting at work and our lives are sedentary.
‘Less about the dress size’
Doing things for abstract reasons like “you may live longer,” doesn’t appeal to Goodwin, and he said he doesn’t buy all the rationale for exercise.
“Still, people who are active are less much likely to get physically or mentally sick and their bodies work better,” he said.
Scientists who study healthy centenarians say at least part of their success is because of a healthy lifestyle. According to the American College of Sports Medicine. Exercising regularly, maintaining a social network and a positive mental attitude are all behaviors consistent with healthy aging.
How old is too old to begin exercising?
Michelle Sierpina, the director of Galveston’s Osher Lifelong Living program, sponsored by the University of Texas Medical Branch, has seen many transformations.
The program called OLLI is only for adults 55 years and older. It offers a full course schedule, including a free fitness class at 9 a.m. every Tuesday through Friday at 4700 Broadway in Galveston.
“As we get older, fitness is more about being physically and mentally independent,” Sierpina said. “It’s less about the dress size and more about feeling good and having energy.”
The Osher Lifelong Living Program offers dozens of exercise and academic classes from the study of opera to ballroom dancing to a class in birding and the history of Galveston.
The exercise class is free and open to all people over age 55.
‘Here’s the reality’
Achieving fitness is a lifetime learning process but it may be easier than you think, and more fun too, said Courtney Walker, an owner and instructor at The Body Space, 1914 45th St.
“You can certainly be fit at 55 and older,” she said. She sees men and women in their 50s and 60s with common issues related to lifestyle and aging.
“Here’s the reality: After you are about 30 years old, you start losing bone density, and you continue to lose it every year,” Walker said. “If you keep your body moving and incorporate a mind/body approach that targets a variety of muscles, you can keep your body strong.”
Walker loves to see people living in their bodies with more ease and improved breathing, she said.
“When you feel good, you’re likely to have a more positive attitude,” she said.
For older students, Walker emphasizes strengthening the upper back, opening the front of the chest, toning and improving the muscles around the pelvis, legs, feet and ankles. This strengthens the spine and the muscles in and around the vertebrae, which holds the body upright.
Walker recommends to start working your feet, because everything will improve from that foundation.
‘It’s never too late’
Some of her students are men and women who have had hip replacements or spinal fusions. Walker has seen good results from Pilates and adding alignment-based movement to increase flexibility and strength, she said.
Pilates is a physical fitness system developed in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates. It is practiced worldwide by an estimated 11 million students.
“It’s never too late to start,” Walker said. “If you have the will and desire to be fit and you show up, that’s more than half the battle.”