Haven’t exercised in decades? Here’s how to get active as a senior

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Ian Greasley was very active as a young man. He did gymnastics, and he even was a fitness instructor while in the armed forces.

But over time, the now-72-year-old from London, Ont., slowed down.

“As the years go by, and you have a couple of kids and you drink a bit more wine, before you know it, you’re heavier than you were and you’re not fit anymore,” Greasley said.

Canadians don’t move nearly enough. That’s the conclusion of study after study on physical activity.

Only 16 per cent of Canadians meet the government’s physical activity guidelines, which require 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise every week, according to Statistics Canada. And experts say that as we get older, we especially need to make sure we’re getting active.

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And no matter how old you are, you can always start.

“If you can still breathe, there’s some exercise that you can be doing,” said Clara Fitzgerald, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging (CCAA) at Western University.

“Our bodies are meant to move and they’re not meant to stop moving as we get older.”

Exercise has been linked to better balance, cognitive function, respiratory and cardiovascular fitness, and general physical function in older people, she said.

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Greasley recently decided to give exercise another try — partly to improve his function, and with awareness that he wanted to stay healthy well into his 80s.

“I play a lot of golf,” he said. “But this summer for the first time, I was finding myself playing more nine holes than 18 holes, because by the time I got to the 10th and 11th and 12th hole, I started to go, ‘God, I’m tired.’”

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He began attending classes at the CCAA two months ago and is noticing a difference already. “I’m not going to be running a marathon. But to be fit, it’s just a whole lot more fun in the morning to get out of bed and go downstairs and not be quite as achy as I was months ago.”

If you’re a bit older but are thinking about becoming more active, here’s how to start.

Start slow

If it’s been a long time since you were active, you need to start slow, said Jenna Doak, a personal trainer who specializes in active aging and runs Body Positive Fitness in Toronto.

She recommends checking with your doctor first to make sure that there aren’t any health conditions that you need to be aware of in your exercise program, like blood pressure concerns, arthritis or injuries.

“There would have to be a pretty big reason for a doctor to say no, you can’t exercise.”

Fitzgerald notes that you can still exercise with pretty well any medical condition. “As long as your medical condition is stabilized, exercise is not contraindicated for any medical condition and you’re never too old to exercise.”

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Sometimes that means staying away from certain kinds of movement, at least for a while, Doak said. “If somebody doesn’t have that strength and mobility in their body, you can’t tell them to do squat jumps, whereas most 20-year-olds can do squat jumps.

“So there are definitely a whole range of exercises that I would never throw at somebody on their first or second months in the gym if they’re over 50 years old.”

Don’t go too hard all at once, Fitzgerald said. “We don’t need to go from doing nothing to becoming a weekend warrior. It’s really about doing what you can, build, and then continue to build. And never stop.”

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Find your peers

You’re more likely to enjoy your exercise if you’re surrounded by others like you — not just the usual buff gym crowd, Doak said.

“Gyms have been taken over by Instagram models and young, beautiful, fit people that are working so hard and grunting and loud and taking selfies and having protein powder and all this stuff. And that’s intimidating to a lot of people, including older people.”

Having others like you in your class can be a source of inspiration, too, Greasley said.

“Having a community of peers that are all in the same boat has been a big help,” he said. “I will have to do this for the rest of my life. Period. I’ve met people 10 years my senior who have been exercising in this program for 10 years and they are very fit.

“I want to be like them.”

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Pick the right exercises

For Fitzgerald, an ideal exercise program for an older individual should include exercises to improve flexibility, balance, strength and cardio, with an emphasis on the last two.

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“Those are the two that deliver the best return on investment of your time,” she said.

Strength training is definitely important for older people, Doak said.

“You want to try to maintain the muscle mass and bone density that you have, if not make it better,” she said. “And the only way to do that is to have load-bearing activities.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean lifting weights, though you can if you wish. Just putting your limbs and joints through their full range of motion is a good start, then as you gain strength, you can add small weights, she said.

Both Fitzgerald and Doak recommend finding a coach or trainer who is familiar with older people, who can properly guide you and make sure you don’t get injured.

Doak notes, though, that all movement is good movement, and if you enjoy walking, for example, you can go walking. “Find something that you love and stick to it.”

“I think it’s also important for people to remember that being active and having fitness in your life doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be in a gym.”

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The goal shouldn’t necessarily be to run a marathon or be the best soccer player in your league, Fitzgerald said. “As we get older, what does it matter what our chronological age is? You could be 60, you could be 80, you could be 90.

“But what becomes more important is how do we present our functional age? So what am I still able to do?”

It’s worth starting exercise at any age, Greasley said. “We all struggle to get fit. And when you’re 45 (…) you just keep thinking, ‘Well, I can do this next year.’”

It’s harder to put things off in your 70s, he said.

“The incentive is different when you get to my age. I have lots of life left. My mind is still pretty good, but if I don’t deal with my body, I may never deal with my body, and that’s good motivation.”

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