BY EVA NORLYK-HERRIOTT
The good news: life expectancy has doubled over the last 100 years. The bad news? Your body doesn’t come with an extended warranty. Keeping the ailments of aging at bay is no simple matter. Physically active boomers are finding that the sports that were fine in their younger years now leave them vulnerable to injuries, aches, and a host of “itis” ailments: bursitis, tendonitis, and so on. Non-fit boomers are no better off—physical inactivity magnifies and speeds age-related changes.
Since the beginning of this century, when large numbers of Baby Boomers began entering their 50s, hospitals have seen an explosion of bone and joint injuries. The popular term for this phenomenon is “boomeritis,” an expression introduced by Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Boomeritis isn’t just some sexy term, it is a problem of epidemic proportions. According to The New York Times, musculoskeletal injuries are now the number one reason for seeking medical care in the U.S. Unfortunately, unlike your car repairman, who can order spare parts for your aging car, your doctor offers no quick fixes.
So does that mean that fit or not fit, either way you lose?
No. The old “use it or lose it” adage is as true as ever. Physical activity is still the best antidote for aging, and the closest you can get to dipping into the fountain of youth. You can slow the deterioration of the body that accompanies aging. But according to physical therapists Marilyn Moffat and Carole B. Lewis, authors of Age-Defying Fitness, to keep the body healthy and balanced over the long term, you need to think differently about what it means to be physically fit.
Fitness, the authors point out, needs to be maintained in five domains: posture, strength, balance, flexibility, and endurance.
Poor posture often starts developing as early as the teenage years. Too much sitting over time creates rounded shoulders and a forward head position, creating auxiliary problems like neck pain or headaches. It also reduces breath capacity and compresses the internal organs, potentially contributing to long-term health problems.
As we get older, our ability to keep our balance is undermined as muscles tighten and weaken, joints lose their full range of motion, and nerve input decreases, making it harder for the body to respond if you are about to trip. Falls are now the leading cause of injury-related deaths for men and women 65 and older.
Over time, the body’s collagen structure changes, causing the connective tissue throughout the body to become less elastic. Flexibility is not optional; it protects you from injuries, helps keep your musculoskeletal system in balance, and contributes to your overall fitness.
If left alone, muscle fibers diminish in size and numbers over time, gradually eroding muscular strength. You need strong muscles to maintain mobility, keep the bones strong, and protect against falls and injuries. Psychologically, strong muscles are also associated with a greater sense of confidence and self-empowerment, and they burn more calories than fat tissue, providing a natural protection against weight gain.
Reduced flexibility, weakened muscles, and stiffer lungs and blood vessels make it harder to remain physically active for longer periods of time, causing you to tire more quickly than when you were younger.
Fitness is Multi-faceted
The notion of five dimensions of fitness is exciting, because it broadens our understanding of what it takes to keep the body fit over time. However, fitness, and ultimately health, is even more multi-faceted than Moffat and Lewis point out. It involves the health and maintenance of all of the body systems, including the immune, endocrine, hormonal, and lymphatic systems.
The gift of movement activities (and I use this term deliberately to avoid the connotations of duty and drudgery often associated with the word “exercise”) is that they affect all of these dimensions. This particularly holds true for more holistic forms of exercise which involve both mind and body, such as yoga, tai chi, and many forms of dance.
In short, as you get older, you need to exercise smarter. Variety is in; a monodiet of repetitive motion, high-impact exercise is out. Exercise programs like dance, yoga, and Pilates that strengthen the back and core muscles can preserve or increase muscle strength and keep your posture healthy over time. Doing a few simple balancing exercises on your own three or four times a week will help keep your balance strong. Stretching for 15 to 20 minutes a day will prevent stiffness and maintain the mobility of your joints. And of course, walking several times a week or taking the stairs at work will strengthen your endurance and cardiovascular fitness.
It is never fun to say goodbye to things we took for granted when we were young. But if you view aging as an opportunity to learn more about your body and how to keep it healthy and strong, you might just discover some very valuable things in the process.
Are You Aging Well?
Take this quiz to see how you fall on the five dimensions of fitness:
• Are you not standing as straight and tall as you once did? (P)
• Is walking up a flight of stairs a strain at times? (S, E)
• Are you getting up from a chair more slowly than you used to? (S)
• Is it getting harder to look to the left and right while backing up? (F)
• Do you get stiff sitting through a long movie? (F)
• Is standing on one leg to put on your shoe difficult or impossible? (B)
• Do you trip or lose your balance more easily? (B)
• Does walking or jogging a distance take longer than it used to? (E)
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are experiencing some loss of function in that fitness dimension: P = posture; S = strength; E = endurance; F = flexibility; B = balance. Seek out forms of exercise that will help improve your specific areas of weakness.
Adapted from Marilyn Moffat and Carole B. Lewis, Age-Defying Fitness (Peachtree).
Eva Norlyk-Herriott, Ph.D., LMT, RYT-200, is a writer and bodyworker specializing in therapeutic yoga and massage in Fairfield, Iowa. Reach her at Fairfieldyoga@yahoo.com or visit YogaForAllSeasons.com.