Dear Doctor: I've never really enjoyed exercise and have managed to get to a fairly healthy 58 without doing very much of it at all. But I just got remarried and my husband, who is pretty active, wants me to start some kind of fitness program. Really, at my age, what good will it do?
Dear Reader: We're sorry to rain on your no-exercise parade, but your husband is on the right track. (Congratulations on your marriage!) It's never too late to start to reap the benefits of a fitness program. It's not that we don't understand your wish to avoid it. Even the most ardent workout enthusiast has been faced with the twin challenges of physical discomfort and boredom. But we think half the battle when easing into a fitness program is choosing the right activities, then setting modest goals. Exercise comes in many guises and with some creative thinking and a bit of grit, we believe you can find an activity or two that you'll enjoy enough that you'll stick with it. But first let's talk about why it's a good idea.
We've all heard a lot about the psychological boost that exercise imparts, which is no small thing in this stressful day and age. Staying active also helps regulate body weight and contributes to overall good health. Now, new research shows that for people over the age of 50, a time of life when blood vessels start to stiffen up and hearts gradually begin to get less efficient, regular exercise can reverse these effects.
In a study published in January, researchers in Texas evaluated the hearts of middle-age adults, looking at how stiff the cardiac muscles had become. When the study participants were sorted by their degree of physical activity, it emerged that the heart muscles of regular exercisers were stronger and more supple -- and therefore effectively younger -- than those of either the sedentary individuals or those who exercised only occasionally.
Next, the researchers wanted to know what effect starting an exercise program later in life might have on the heart. To that end, they tracked two groups of previously sedentary individuals. One group began exercising for 30 minutes at least four times per week. The other started a program of balance and stretching. Two years later, tests showed that the hearts of the exercise group had become not just stronger but also more supple. The stretch-and-balance group did not reap the same cardiac benefits.
The idea that we can return our hearts to a more youthful state, even later in life, is an exciting one. The challenge is to find an activity (or activities) you're willing to do at least four times per week and will stick with over the years. Brisk walks or hikes require only a pair of decent shoes. Mix it up with activities you may have enjoyed as a child, such as cycling, swimming, trampolining or skating. Working out with friends, your husband, or with music and books on tape helps make it all more interesting. Just be sure to start slow and take the time you need to ease into your new routine.