No one can argue against the many health benefits of staying active. Studies have shown that physical activity can help protect against heart disease, cancer and even Alzheimer's. But what if you have been a couch potato all your life and now that you are staring down the barrel of the big 5-0, you want to live a healthier life? Should you put down those dumbbells before you even get started?
Our experts say no. Phil Nicolaou, PhD, NASM, IFPA, ISSA, NESTA, a master trainer and senior fitness training specialist told Philly.com, "It is important as we age to maintain strength, flexibility and balance."
"The challenge of getting fit after 50 is that by that time many people have lost muscle mass due to inactivity and with that comes more brittle bones and increased risk of injury in addition to a slower metabolism and the inability to stay lean and strong. It is important to maintain the ability to do our activities of daily living and that is only possible if we keep moving, doing resistance training, aerobic training, and maintaining flexibility and balance," Nicolaou said.
According to the CDC, inactivity increases with age. By age 75, about one in three men and one in two women engage in no physical activity. Risk of injury or worsening health condition are common fears that keep seniors from lacing up their sneakers. According to Nicolaou though, a properly designed exercise program can avoid injury, rebuild lost muscle tissue and help strengthen bone density.
"Strength training won't hurt anything, unless it is done incorrectly," he said.
Other misconceptions about exercise after 50 are that weight lifting is dangerous and that only aerobic exercises are necessary, Nicolaou however, said that nothing could be further from the truth.
"Aerobics are important, but do nothing for keeping your muscle mass and bone density strong," Nicolaou said. "As we age, we need functional strength. We need to be able to move around and conduct our activities of daily living." That is hard when you don't have the muscle strength to do anything, he added.
For seniors, lifting heavy weights is not necessary to maintain muscle mass and bone strength. Nicolaou recommends a moderate intensity of 12 to 20 repetitions to start. A properly designed exercise program should include cardio and resistance training which can help tremendously with osteoporosis,arthritis, balance, pulmonary disease, obesity, diabetes and back problems, according to Nicolaou.
Nicolaou's advice: Keep moving. Whether it is gardening, mowing the lawn, swimming, or walking, the more you move your body, the better it will work. When people become too sedentary, that is when the body becomes deconditioned and falls apart.
Start off with a light 20 to 30 minute walk a few times a week. Then add in two days of light weight training. Pick a weight that you can initially perform 15 to 20 repetitions with at a slower tempo and gradually build up to 2 sets of exercises like shoulder presses, arm curls and squats. Also add in simple balance exercises like lifting up your foot up off the floor and placing it back down on the floor, holding onto a counter top if needed.
Sinclair Smith, ScD, professor and chair of Health and Sciences Department at Drexel University agrees that it is never too late to get fit. He said in an interview, that while many people think you should slow down as you get older, what is needed is quite the opposite.
"Maintaining muscle strength and body composition is critical when we get older," Smith said.
For Smith, the biggest challenge to getting fit after 50 is finding the time and making exercise a part of your daily routine. He recommends choosing an activity you enjoy or at least one you don't dislike.
"I started with riding a stationary bike in the morning while watching ESPN with my son," Smith said. "You can partner up, go to a gym or hire a personal trainer if it helps you stay on track."
Before starting any new exercise routine, Smith cautioned that it is important to discuss it with your physician because exercise can impact the effectiveness of medication for certain illnesses or metabolic conditions like diabetes.
He also advised that if you have never exercised before, you should talk to a nutritionist and a personal trainer first because every person's needs are different.
"Start with something easy and build intensity, duration, and frequency," Smith said. "Above all, listen to your body. If it hurts or feels funny or different then stop. Don't push through it,"
Bottom line: You don't have to be a powerlifting granny with muscles bulging, but you do have to get up off that couch and MOVE.