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Health and Fitness: Should You Sweat It?

Save for the hopelessly sedentary among us, we seniors are afloat in, or are warily circling, the Age of Exercise.

The Boomer generation put us there. Its members have read and heard lots about the benefits of physical exertion, and they’ve absorbed the results—as well they should—and we pre-Boomers, too. 

“The older individual who participates in exercise and/or competition ameliorates responses and reactions to loss that are part of the aging process,” says Catherine Jackson, professor of kinesiology at California State University at Fresno. “Much of what is ‘lost’ is due to reconditioning, and participation reverses those effects.

Older people who are fit are generally more empowered, happier, more positive in outlook, less fearful or depressed, more independent, and have more self-respect and a greater feeling of self-worth.” What you’re after is to break a sweat, work your heart muscle, and move your limbs, all while having a good time. 

If you subscribe to that philosophy, or would like to, here are some pointers about starting, perservering, setting and reaching goals, viewing one’s limitations realistically, and warding off and dealing with injuries.

The benefits of exercise are not “sport-specific.” Indeed, they don’t depend on a sport at all, just on serious and consistent exercise. But sports, or games, are for most of us, simply more enjoyable than just “working out.”

New Jersey Retiree Sylvia Colston-Still pursues basketball—at the surprising age of 74. And she plays it very well, earning a spot not long ago on the U.S. Senior Olympic team. “I try to exercise every day,” Colston-Still says. “If not basketball, I lift weights.” But she makes no pretense about being a perfect role model: “I don’t go to doctors, and I never stretch my muscles [before or after workouts].” Despite those idiosyncrasies, or perhaps because of them, “I think I’ll be playing basketball when I’m a hundred.”

How to get started if you want to play a sport? With professional guidance, Catherine Jackson emphasizes.

Not from your GP but from, for instance, a knowledgeable exercise physiologist, preferably someone with American College of Sports Medicine certification. (You can find certified practitioners throughout the country.) 

Also, Jackson adds, the best kind of beginners’ exercise “stresses the aerobic system and builds endurance.” Asked how beginners can tell if they’re overdoing whatever they’re doing, she has a common-sensical answer: “If, after playing, they cannot get through a normal day without taking a nap, they’re probably overdoing it.”

In emphasizing the cardio workout, however, do not fail to build strength and flexibility as well. Jackson advises that “strength capacity is the single best predictor for independence as one ages” and that—Ms. Colston-Still notwithstanding—“limbering up joints is best done with a flexibility routine; it takes very little time and should be done at the end of the workout.”

Diciest joint: the knee. Human beings’ upright posture all but assures knee problems if we live long enough to incur them. But you can ward them off with strengthening exercises (any competent trainer knows several) and by avoiding too much, if any, running on unforgiving surfaces. If you jog, for example, steer clear of pavement; seek out turf or a running track.

Stop before overworking any joint. If you don’t, it will repay you in a very unkind manner. Jackson measures overwork simply: “If you are sore 48 or more hours after activity, you are into Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness”—or DOMS, an acronym as gloomy as the thing it describes.

Colorado retiree Bob Alarid, 59, a passionate skier, has seen plenty of knee injuries—but not his own. Notes Alarid: “When they’re tired, a lot of my pals say, ‘One more run down that slope!’ Then they end up in the hospital for knee replacements.” Why? Because when ageing athletes

tire, their muscles weaken and they make mistakes, both of which can cause injuries. If you do suffer an injury, should you surf the Web for tips on dealing with it? We all know stories of people, especially with serious medical conditions, who’ve found great advice on some obscure Web site. But burn this warning from Dr. Jackson into your brain: “Even if you have some medical sophistication, it is very unwise to accept what may appear to be reasonable advice” without consulting a trained professional.

If you’re pretty fit, there’s a constant question of whether to go for more exercise or less. I lean instinctively toward more. But when I recently asked my tennis pal Roger Tweedt, who’s in his late 60s and is, like me, a longtime serious player, he replied, in effect, less: “For older players, the competitive spirit of youth is more an enemy than a friend. Most of my injuries have occurred when my desire to win has overwhelmed my sense of my physical limits. I think us older folks should play only doubles, not singles, and for no more than an hour and a half.” 

Bob Alarid voices a similar caution about skiing. “When I was younger, I’d hit the slopes when they opened to get in a full eight hours. Now, two to three hours is plenty. I don’t go at it to the point of fatigue.” From the standpoint of technique, too, that’s paid dividends: “I’ve actually gotten a lot better. I used to look pretty pitiful out there. Now I’m lookin’ good!”

—Roger M. Williams

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