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3 Components of a Good Exercise Routine

3 Components of a Good Exercise Routine
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By Steve Weinstein

I had a Pilates instructor who once blurted out, “Don’t give me that age excuse, because I don’t buy it.”

She’s right: Growing older is no excuse for not staying fit. In fact, it’s all the more important; the older we get, the more susceptible to diseases and accidents directly related to how physically fit we are. As Bette Davis famously said, old age is not for sissies.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t alter our fitness regimen as we age. Doctors are are seeing so many sports-related injuries in people over 50 that they’ve coined a term for it, Boomeritis. The best way to avoid injury while keeping fit is an integrated workout that combines cardio, strength training, and stretching and balancing exercises.

According to longtime New York Times health reporter Jane Brody, “Regular participation in aerobics, strength training and balance and flexibility exercises, can delay and may even prevent a life-limiting loss of physical abilities into one’s 90s and beyond.”

CARDIO

Run, don’t walk.

That’s the message from researchers at two universities who studied men and women from their mid-60s to late-70s. Comparing subjects who walked several times a week to runners, they concluded that the runners not only walked more efficiently than their peers, they walked about as well as your typical college student. Older walkers, on the other hand, could only walk as well as sedentary peers.

Dave Ellner, a trainer at New York gym Definitions, recommends combining interval training — intense cardio for a few minutes followed by slowing down for the same amount of time — with sustained cardio at a more moderate speed. “Interval training burns fat more efficiently, but your body gets used to it,” he says. Frequently changing your cardio routine will “shock” the body into burning fat more efficiently.

The good news is that all cardio burns fat. That includes everything from biking to a night of dancing. As long as you elevate your heart rate for at least 40 minutes, you’re building up the body’s most important muscle to prevent strokes and other heart-related conditions.

STRENGTH TRAINING

Sports sociologist Carl Stempel has noted that many professionals and others in upper-income brackets associate aerobic sports with character-building qualities.

That’s especially true for people over 50, who grew up with the notion that anyone who lifts weights must be a dumb muscle head overcompensating for a lack of power in other areas of their lives.

Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth or more dangerous. Loss of muscle mass begins in the 30s and accelerates as one ages. Strengthening muscles not only prevents age-related conditions like osteoporosis and arthritis, but is a super-efficient way to lose fat.

Dr. Miriam Nelson, author of “Strong Women Stay Young,” found that older women who lifted weights just 40 minutes two times a week looked better, were happier, had more energy and exuded self-confidence. Another study showed that 50 frail men and women in their 80s and 90s dramatically increased their ability to climb stairs and take brisk walks.

Ellner believes that free weights should be used whenever possible, because “you’re stabilizing the muscles yourself. A machine does the stabilizing for you.” Nearing 50 himself, he has scaled back the amount of weights he lifts and has eliminated some exercises. For example, he uses dumbbells instead of bench presses.

“But you know what?” he asks. “There’s no ironclad rule in any of this.” The most important aspect of weight lifting, he adds, is proper form. If you worry about the weight you’re lifting you really are a dumb muscle head.

STRETCHING AND BALANCING

Both cardio and strength training, which tighten the muscle, will do more harm than good if not accompanied by intense stretching.

For older people, keeping the body supple is the only way to prevent creaky muscles and debilitating back pain. Yoga and Pilates classes are excellent ways to challenge yourself. Just remember that you can modify any exercise. Don’t worry about what everyone is doing: You’re only competing with yourself.

Whether alone or in a class, Ellner recommends stretching the muscle to the point where it starts to contract. Hold that stretch for 60 seconds. “Most people don’t do that,” he notes. “They might do it for 10 seconds. That’s not long enough to elicit a change.”

Falling is the leading cause of injury of those over 64 and affects one in three seniors every year. That’s why balancing — perhaps the least-understood type of exercise — is the most important for older folks. Ellner likes to have older clients catch a ball while being challenged to stabilize themselves. Also consider ballet classes, a fun way to improve balance with elegance and grace.

Don’t be afraid to push yourself, not too hard but don’t baby yourself, either. Exercise should be challenging. Once you begin, you’ll surprise yourself with what you can do.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Ellner notes. “Understand what might be holding you back. It’s very empowering to wake up and realize that you can make the impossible possible.”

Most importantly, don’t think that just because you were never a gym rat it’s too late to start, or that you’re too old to exert yourself. As Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black humorously observed, “When I was 40, my doctor advised me that a man in his 40s shouldn’t play tennis. I heeded his advice carefully and could

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Steve Weinstein
Steve Weinstein is a journalist who had interned at the Sunday Times of London and has written for New York Magazine, The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal (online), CNBC.com and The Village Voice among others. He has edited Crain's New York Business, Edge Media Network, the New York Blade and New York Press, and authored The Q Guide to Fire Island (Alyson, 2007). He lives in Midtown Manhattan with two Staffordshire pit bulls.