DIMENSIONS Winter 2004

Walking to the Fountain of Youth

by Drs. Rebecca G. Logsdon & Susan M. McCurry

Regular exercise provides many well-documented health benefits, including stronger hearts, bones, and muscles. It makes us feel more energetic, sleep better, and have a better outlook on life. Exercise helps prevent many chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, decreases our risk for some types of cancer, and may improve our immune function, so we are less susceptible to illnesses like flu or pneumonia. The MacArthur Foundation Study of Successful Aging found that participants who exercised the most had the best mental function 10 years later.

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We all know exercise is good for us, yet 60 percent of Americans admit that they do not exercise regularly. What keeps us on our couches and out of the gym? One problem may be that we think of exercise as something we can only do at the gym, or that requires special equipment and a lot of effort. We may believe the old saying, “no pain, no gain,” and think exercise must leave us exhausted and sore in order to be beneficial. But recent research shows that moderate activity for 30 minutes a day is enough to significantly improve our health. The 30 minutes doesn’t even have to be done all at once; if that’s too difficult, breaking activity into three 10-minute sessions throughout the day also offers substantial health benefits.

Some may also think: “Well, I haven’t ever exercised in my life, and it’s too late to start now.” If this is your attitude, it’s time to think again! Research with participants in their 70s, 80s, and 90s has shown that often it’s the people who are most out of shape or frail who benefit the most from starting a regular exercise program. If standing up is painful, you can exercise while sitting down. Even if you can only walk half a block today, if you gradually increase your walking by two or three steps a day, you will soon be going around the block.

Many of us have started an exercise program, only to stop after a few months because we lost interest, or other responsibilities intruded. But research has also shown that once we stop exercising, we stop reaping its benefits. If you have started and stopped exercising, think about what it was that caused you to stop. Was it an injury or illness? Was it other responsibilities? Was it bad weather? Or did it just seem like too much of a chore?

Whatever the reason, brainstorm ways to overcome the obstacles you have encountered. Stopping exercise is not the problem; the problem is failing to re-start it. If an injury or illness was the cause, talk with a doctor or physical therapist about what kinds of exercise you can safely do. If other responsibilities intruded, consider breaking your exercise into small chunks throughout the day, or find a time of day that you can prioritize your own health and exercise. Bad weather is a fact of life, but doesn’t keep you from exercising at home, or walking at a mall. And if your exercise was boring or a chore, think of how to find a different activity that you enjoy and look forward to. Sometimes exercising with a friend, watching TV while you walk on a treadmill, or reading a book while you pedal a stationary bike can make time fly.

Our research at the UW ADRC has shown that regular exercise can improve mood, physical functioning, and sleep in people with Alz-heimer’s disease (AD) and their caregivers. Exercises for persons with AD may need to be modified to be appropriate and safe for someone with memory loss. For example, caregivers should be present when the person with AD is using exercise equipment such as weights, exercise bikes, or treadmills to ensure that the equipment is being used properly and not placing the person at risk for injury or falls. Persons with AD who like to walk or exercise outdoors should do so with an exercise partner who can help them keep track of time, distance, and make sure they do not become lost. Individuals with AD and caregivers who exercise together often find it to be a very enjoyable experience, which can improve mood as well as physical health and function.

So, how can you get started? The first thing to do is to let your health care provider know that you want to start, and see what suggestions he or she has about what you can safely do. Next, think about what can realistically fit into your daily schedule, and make a plan to exercise at regular times each day. You may plan to do some stretching in the morning while the coffee is brewing, take a walk at mid-day when the mail arrives, and do some strength training while you watch the evening news. Or you may decide that it’s best for you to do your whole exercise routine first thing in the morning, before you get busy with your day. You may decide to enroll in an exercise class to meet people and keep you motivated. Since everyone is different, there is no “right” way to exercise. The important thing is to find something you can do regularly and to start again if you stop for a while.

“In the battle between the rock and the river, the river always wins, because the river just keeps at it.” The key to improving your health through exercise is to just keep at it.


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