Three days a week, Aaron Medow of Hollywood spends about two hours on the water paddling his kayak with about a dozen friends. Although most are in their 60s and 70s, Medow is the most senior at 83.
Having canoed all his life, he found that kayaking suited him after his wife died and he became a solo paddler. “Some may say they live to kayak, but as I’ve aged, I kayak to live,” he says.
“Along with good nutrition, you need to have a consistent and intense daily program of exercise to be healthy,” says John E. Lewis, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
There will be 70 million Americans over age 65 by the year 2030, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. And people over 85 will be the fastest-growing segment of that population.
“As you get older, if you sit, you sit. But if you move, you’ll move better,” says Medow, a retired cardiologist. “The body is a complex chemical factory that is made to function. Immobility contributes to all the bad things that happen.”
That’s why the World Health Organization recommends that all adults, including seniors, do some form of exercise at least 30 minutes a day.
When you exercise, you put the stress of working on your muscles. And this beneficial stress triggers the body to adapt by adding something that will let it do a better job the next time it is asked to perform, explains Lewis.
For example, during strength training, the muscle feels the stress of the weight it is being asked to lift. In response, the body breaks down the proteins and the fibers in the muscle. Then, explains Lewis, the body says, “OK, I need to add more muscle to the site so the next time I’m asked to lift this amount of weight, I’ll be ready to do it better.”
In response, the body builds muscle and you gain strength thanks to the immune system and your own adult stem cells that cause your body to repair, restore and regenerate itself after exercise.
“If it weren’t for the immune system producing stem cells every day, you wouldn’t live very long. Instead, you’d deteriorate away,” says Lewis.
Here’s how it works: When you exercise, the good stress on the body stimulates the immune system. In turn, the immune system triggers your bone marrow to create stem cells that travel through the bloodstream.
When they arrive at a stressed area of the body, such as your bicep when you do a set of curls, they can help other local factors grow what’s needed to make your body ready for the next time you exercise and put it under stress.
Something similar happens in your cardiovascular system when you ride a bike, run, swim, walk on a treadmill or do other aerobic exercise. This time your body says, “OK, I was just pushed hard for 30 minutes, so I need to have more lung capacity and a stronger heart muscle so my body doesn’t have to work so hard the next time this happens.”
And the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolic rate, so you burn more calories and lose weight, especially abdominal fat. As a result, your blood pressure may drop, you become less resistant to insulin so your Type 2 diabetes might be controllable without medication, you might reduce your risks of developing certain cancers, and your blood-cholesterol profile may improve.
Also, as muscle grows and gets stronger, it helps support and protect our bones that can become more brittle with age. This can help prevent falls and fractures.
Once a week in Lighthouse Point, Diane McEwan leads about 15 women ranging in age from 50 to almost 90 through an hour-long exercise class.
“Your body is like a car,” she tells them. “If you park it in the garage and don’t run it, everything dries up and goes funky. And that’s why seniors who are sedentary are sick more often. You’ve got to move it or lose it.”
For seniors to feel good and be healthy, they need a four-pronged approach to exercise that includes increasing strength, endurance, balance and flexibility, says Dr. Renaldo Camargo an internist with a specialty in geriatric medicine at Holy Cross Medical Group in Fort Lauderdale.
McEwan covers it all by having her classes do step touches, hamstring curls, kicks, bicep curls, grapevines and more, as well as using light weights and elastic bands. It’s all kept lively with music by Beyoncé, Lorde, Rihanna and Pitbull pulsing from her pink iPhone.
“There’s a time and place for oldies, but nobody wants to feel old,” McEwan says.
Camargo recommends that seniors do endurance or aerobic exercise for about 30 minutes four to five times a week. For strength training, he suggests moderately intense weightlifting two or three times a week, during which you work all the major muscle groups. Flexibility training or stretching can be done daily.
“People may think that a half-hour is too much time to devote to exercising,” says Lewis. “I try to challenge my patients to set priorities, manage their time well and realize that exercise is the best medicine.”
But even before you begin, the surgeon general of the United States recommends that men over age 40 and women over 50 should consult a physician to be sure they do not have heart disease or other health problems that might limit their ability to exercise safely.
Of course, you can walk or ride a bike through your neighborhood and use elastic bands for resistance training at home. But people who prefer groups might join other seniors such as those who exercise at 13 Miami-Dade County parks under the auspices of the Active Adults 55+ Program coordinated by Allan Tavss.
The program, which attracts about 300 people, is designed to help older adults improve their well-being through consistent physical activity, Tavss explains.
Local seniors learned more about the 55+ program at a health and wellness fair held at Continental Park in Miami earlier this month. There are plans for such a fair to be held monthly in each of the participating locations.
And beginning in February, a low-impact Enhanced Fitness program will help seniors reach their goals for weight loss and cardio health. “Anyone who joins us will just feel better,” says Tavss, who plans to participate himself. Other free activities include tennis, yoga, Zumba, walking and dancing.
“Just find something you enjoy so you’ll stick with it,” says Lewis, who adds that consistency and intensity are key to maximizing the benefits of exercise.
If you decide to join a gym and work with a personal trainer, Camargo recommends that you find one trained to work with seniors. “I’ve seen some trainers who try to push people, making them prone to injuries,” he says.
Always begin low and slow. “If you’ve been inactive for a very long time, the last thing you want to do is jump into a program with a lot of enthusiasm and motivation and end up very sore or injured,” says Lewis. Instead, start with a low-intensity workout and gradually work your way up.
It helps to begin each exercise session with a short period of light activity to warm up the body and lubricate your joints. Try spending five to 10 minutes at a slow pace on the treadmill or stationary bike before you start stressing your body.
Cecil T. Daniels, 72, retired from being a Miami-Dade school administrator about 10 years ago. Early on in his retirement, he enjoyed spending time with childhood friends sitting around a Liberty City barbershop for five or six hours a day.
“We were having fun talking sports and talking fishing and telling lies about the size of the fish we caught,” he says.
Besides talking, those friends also regularly ate fast food such as fried chicken and chicken wings.
Daniels started putting on weight.
Another friend noticed him in the barbershop whenever he visited and suggested Daniels join him at a gym. Of course, Daniels agreed to show up at the gym the very next day, and, of course, he didn’t go.
But with more encouragement from his friend and his wife, he decided to give it a try. For the past four years, he’s been spending weekday mornings at the former Gold’s Gym in Miami Lakes, participating in two Silver Sneakers exercise classes designed expressly for seniors.
“I enjoy it and I feel so much healthier and youthful,” says Daniels, who lost 23 pounds and has made many new friends.
Although he has Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, both conditions are now under control. And his goal for the New Year is to get off his blood-pressure medication.
“I’d rather go to the gym than the doctor’s office any day,” he says.