By Jenny Noble
There’s a Budhist saying that from the moment we’re born, we begin to die. Ouch. Not good news for those of us looking for the perfect elixir for eternal life. While aging seems to be inevitable, exercise, even the smallest amount and the simplest routine, can make the aging process much more enjoyable. Staying young is fundamentally about how you live and how you feel as you grow older. In terms of literally extending years, exercise also helps prevent a whole host of diseases and geriatric illnesses that shorten one’s life.
As we age we lose human growth hormones. This in turn, can cause decrease in bone density, increase in fat and loss of muscle and flexibility. Even the size of internal organs decreases. Physical activity, however, promotes growth hormones, thus reversing these patterns. It also helps digestion, circulation, balance and reduces the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis. Not to mention the emotional and intellectual benefits. Or sex drive.
Another way to put it, according to John Seely of One Ocean Yoga, is that youth is really just a reflection of mobility, flexibility and resiliency. “As we get older, our range of motion, physically and intellectually can grow more narrow. The trick is to maintain what you’ve got.”
While there’s no magic bullet as to which activity works best, there are certain aspects of exercise that become more important as we age.
Exercise that promotes muscle strength is vital. Lester Ware at Personal Best in Bridgehampton stresses that keeping muscle mass up is almost more important than cardiovascular activity.
“A person loses ¼ lb to 1 lb per year of muscle mass between age 20 and 40. So you could have 20 lbs. less muscle by 40,” says Ware. “All the aerobics in the world won’t replace that. It’s about not letting it atrophy”.
Exercise that works the whole body is also key. Rich Decker at Studio89 believes that a good well rounded workout should involve the chore of your body and a broad range of muscles. “Day to day movements aren’t isolated. If you slip on the ice, you need your whole body to right yourself.”
Low impact exercise is much better on the body than high impact in one’s senior years.
“It’s very different than in your 20’s where you’re pounding your body. You need time to rest and recover”, says Beryl Birch, an international yoga teacher. Luckily, there are many alternatives to high impact exercise. Instead of running, where repetitive stress leads to injury, try race walking which can actually be more physically rigorous. Swimming is also a great work out, so long as you move fast and make it cardiovascular. Another great option for balance, circulation, digestion and staying limber is yoga. And if your idea of yoga is a room full of pretzel-shaped bodies balancing on one hand, you’ll be relieved to know that there are many less extreme “paths.” Birches book, “Boomer Yoga” is specifically geared for baby boomers who want the benefits of yoga without poses that overstrain the body.
Trying something new is an often overlooked component to staying youthful. “As we age,” says Seely, “our bodies get stuck in certain patterns. When faced with something new, it’s easy to think ‘Oh come on. I haven’t been there since I was 12’. Part of staying young is the ability to adapt to change. Whether it’s doing a headstand or taking up belly dancing, shaking up your routine keeps you young.”
Finding joy in exercise is what matters to Jimmy Minardi of MinardiTraining. He believes that the fountain of youth exists in nature. “If running on a treadmill is so great, why do we need TV to keep us entertained? Because we’ve taken the joy out of exercise. Kids don’t ride stationary bikes. They take you down roads you’ve never been down before.”
Whether gym trainer or yogi, all the experts agree on one thing: Just move it. What one does is much less important than just getting out there and doing something, anything, every single day. The American Medical Association recommends just 30 minutes of activity a day, so even a short workout can mean a huge improvement. Ware suggests “starting with a light leg press or squat, some kind of pull, a bench press or pushup, a trunk roll for the abdominal piece and finishing with a back arch. All in about 20 minutes.”
There are myriad other ways to stay young beyond the gym or yoga studio. Get a dog to walk. Mow your lawn with an old-fashioned push mower. Find a friend to walk with and make it social. If it’s too cold to go outside, make an insta-gym at home (a can of Cambell’s soup in an old purse makes a highly fashionable dumbbell). In traditional Greek homes, women tended to live longer than the men. Why? Because while men drank grappa and smoked cigars, women scrubbed dishes, mopped the kitchen floor, etc. When it comes to exercise, there’s no one size fits all formula. It’s all good.
One last regimen for staying young comes from Felipe Seirra, molecular biologist and director of the Division of Aging Biology at the National Institute of Aging: “I laugh a lot”.