top of page

Successful Aging: Knowing when to stop – or start – physical activity

Q. I am 83 years old and recently moved a piece of furniture like I always have done in the past. This time I hurt my shoulder and neck. My family is on my case “not to do too much.” How do you know when doing something physical is too much without first trying it? W.M.

A. Dear W.M.

Accidents happen – a trip over a curb or just twisting the wrong way. To help prevent such mishaps, let’s talk about awareness, strength and flexibility.

Although we may be 70, 80 or 85 years old, we typically don’t feel our age. Bernard Baruch, American financier, philanthropist and statesman is quoted as saying, “To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am.” Most of us don’t feel our chronological age, which is good news. The bad news is that we forget our bodies do age over time. And we know that aging ultimately is a declining process.

Consider the following mental outlook and actions that might help prevent mishaps.

We need to be aware of where we are walking and how we are sitting. We also need to be aware of our own bodies and what it physically takes to get a job done. Participating in an overall fitness program designed for one’s needs and capacities can enhance this type of awareness.

We need to remain strong. Loss of muscle mass is a natural part of aging that can diminish strength, balance and often posture. The loss typically begins in our 30’s. Physically inactive people can lose as much as three to five percent of their muscle mass each decade after 30. Here is the good news. We can build muscle at any age, well into our 80s. Even those in their 90s who are frail from inactivity can double their strength.

We need to maintain our flexibility. This refers to how freely our joints move. As part of the normal aging process, connective tissues get tighter and can limit our range of motion and consequently decrease flexibility. The intervention is stretching.

Some recommended exercises:

Strength: Pilates and resistance training increases strength, helps keep weight down and also can help prevent diabetes and other health problems. Imagine safely lifting your grandchild out of the highchair, safely taking the large trash bin to the curb or even safely moving that piece of furniture.

Flexibility: An exercise/fitness class, yoga, tai chi, ballet and Pilates all involve stretching. Staying limber helps prevent falls, prevents injuries and allows us to dance the night away.

There always are reasons to avoid exercising. We are too busy or we don’t like to sweat. The outdoor temperature is too cold or too hot. If we feel fine and look good, why bother? We know Mary, Jack or Sarah who died at 102 and never exercised. We hate going to the gym where our flabby muscles will stand out among those young firm bodies on the exercise machines.

For those who do not want to work out with the spandex set, niche gyms have emerged. Nifty After Fifty, Club 50 Fitness Center and Silver Sneakers offer fitness programs for older adults who may – or may not – have perfectly toned bodies. Silver Sneakers is specifically for those 65 years and older with 14,000 locations in the U.S. See Some Medicare Advantage plans pay for the membership fee.

Let’s not ignore the value of walking. Warming up with stretches and walking at a brisk pace makes this activity considered as one of the best wonder drugs for older adults. Almost everyone can do it and no gym membership or athletic equipment is required.

Try to avoid the philosophy of a former president and Chancellor of the University of Chicago, educator Robert M. Hutchins. “When I feel like exercising, I just lie down until the feeling goes away.” May his philosophy be a passing thought.

W.M., Thank you for your good question. The most we can do is to mitigate the risks of injury by being aware of our own bodies, the environment and improving our strength and flexibility. Add to the mix enough sleep and nutritious meals. So carry on.

P.S. Let your family know you appreciate their concern and are committed to being as fit as possible – that’s your prevention. Above all, stay safe.

bottom of page