When It Comes to Exercise, There Is No Such Thing As “Age Appropriate”
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, J.D., Founder
You’ve probably heard people make the comment, often derisively, “they shouldn’t be doing that at their age” when they hear of someone in their sixties skydiving, skiing, playing football or pressing iron at the gym. Somehow it has become part of our collective belief system that certain sports and exercises are for “young people” and that others are for “old people.”
This is no doubt reinforced by professional athletes who retire at 35 because they are “past their prime” and a popular culture that pigeonholes older adults (except perhaps Betty White) to nothing more strenuous than shuffleboard, horseshoes or ballroom dancing.
The reality, however, is that when it comes to which exercises or sports you “should” enjoy or try, the expression “age is just a number” definitely applies. The truth, as much as we have been taught otherwise, is that age has very little to do with which physical activities a person should consider for protecting their physical and emotional health.
If you need some evidence of this, consider Willie Murphy, the 80-something weightlifting grandmother who is the envy of competitors half her age (and who didn’t even start lifting until she was in her fifties); Ginette Bedard, the 86-year-old marathon runner who even holds a record for her age group in the New York City marathon; or professional golfer Gary Player, who at 83 is still active in many aspects of the sport. I have a hard time imagining anyone telling these three they are “too old” for their sports.
If age is not the determining factor as to which exercise routine or sport to pursue as you age, then what is?
There are actually two factors to consider.
The first is what do you find interesting and motivating, and is it something that you could do consistently? A big part of the benefit of physical activity comes from doing it regularly. If power walking is really not your thing, then do something else.
The second factor, and this is the one the “ageists” overlook, is simply your physical ability. This has to do not so much with what you are “good at” but rather what you can do comfortably with the shape your body is in today (as you continue to do your favorite exercise, your fitness level will improve, allowing you to do a more challenging routine).
But, don't overdo it!
This does not mean, however, that you should just jump into something new with both feet or that you should all of a sudden double or triple any physical activity that you may already be doing. As tempting as it may sound, if you currently take leisurely strolls a few times a week, signing up for the New York marathon may not be the best thing (give it a couple of years).
Or, if your idea of weightlifting is picking up your coffee mug in the morning, hold off for now on trying to bench press your bodyweight. What it does mean, however, is that you can do whatever your body will let you do without risking injury. If you have a favorite sport or exercise but you have some physical limitations, just make some adjustments and you will be set. For example, if you really enjoy yoga but standing that long is difficult, then do chair yoga. Or if you like resistance training but your joints and a bench press don’t really get along, try resistance bands or TRX.
So, now that you no longer have the excuse of “I’m too old to exercise” or “I’m too old to toss a football with the grandkids,” where do you go from here? The first thing is to check with your doctor or another competent healthcare provider to see if you have any current physical limitations or risk factors for doing any specific type of exercise. For example, if you have problems with your knees, your doctor may recommend focusing on lower-impact activities, or if you have hypertension, he or she may recommend taking it easier on cardio or exercises that could raise your blood pressure.
Once you have this guidance, then you are set to begin exploring “no age limits” exercises. As you work on your personal plan, keep in mind that there are four types of exercises that you want to include.
- Endurance: These are the exercises that get your heart pumping and help you build stamina. To help you maximize the value of these exercises, you may want to calculate your maximum heart rate for your age and then target around 55 – 85 percent of that during endurance exercises. Your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age. Great endurance exercises are biking, jump rope, power walking, jumping jacks and jogging.
- Resistance: These exercises help you increase or maintain your muscle mass and strength. Basically, any exercise that makes your muscles “work” counts as resistance exercise. The most well-known is lifting weights, but isometric exercises, resistance bands, TRX, yoga and bodyweight exercises, such as push-ups, all count. Just start slowly and increase the resistance as you get stronger.
- Balance: These exercises will help prevent falls and perhaps even keep you from being generally clumsy. If you want something very simple that you can do at home to improve balance, try standing on just one leg (bonus for doing this while talking on the phone or putting on your socks!). Yoga and mat Pilates are other great ways to work on balance while also getting in some endurance exercise.
- Flexibility and Stretching: These exercises are really important to help avoid injury from whatever exercises you choose. They also increase range-of-motion and make it easier to move. It’s a good idea to do some stretching before exercise as a warm-up and then after as a cool-down. You can try the traditional “touch your toes” for starters and expand your stretching repertoire as you get increasingly more limber. Yoga is also a great way to stretch (there are even classes or videos on the Internet for this). Be sure not to force a stretch and to just ease into it. Your joints and muscles will thank you!
Another good recommendation is to set realistic goals for your ageless exercise or sport. I like to use the SMART method of goal setting. It reminds me to make sure my goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and that I have a timeframe for achieving them. This helps me to avoid vague goals such as “bicycle more” or “get in better shape.”And don't forget to fuel your body.
No matter which ageless exercises or sports you decide on, don’t forget to make sure your body is getting the nutrients it needs – and in the right amounts – to help you get the most benefit from all your hard work.
The saying, “You can’t out train a bad diet,” couldn’t be truer. No matter how much you are exercising, a diet full of ultra-processed foods will definitely deter you from getting fit and healthy. Also be mindful of nutrients that can help fuel your exercise, no matter your favorite, and help you recover afterwards.
Enjoy your healthy life!
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Please consult with your doctor or another competent healthcare practitioner to get specific medical advice for your situation.
The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.