The more you age, the more you should exercise. This is the gist of fitness professional and former Inquirer Lifestyle columnist Tina Juan’s message to the country’s growing number of senior citizens in their 60s, 70s and even 80s.
The benefits of keeping fit are, of course, legion—from maintaining strength and stamina to improving mental alertness and balance that could save you from unexpected and fatal falls later on. If you don’t exercise, warns Juan, you will “deteriorate” prematurely. Put simply, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
“Of course, even if you exercise and eat properly, you will age. But you will age the right way,” she assures.
It may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s good old human nature at work when you wonder why old people avoid exercise when they need it most. It begins when people avoid what’s hard for them, writes Juan in an e-mail interview.
Admittedly, everything, from reading to bending in order to tie your shoelaces, becomes harder as one ages. Routine things you take for granted in your youth now often challenge your mind and body. But giving in to your urges to sit down or lie in bed are part of a vicious cycle that creates its own set of age-induced, health-related problems later on.
“If walking makes them tired, they avoid situations wherein they have to walk for relatively long periods,” says Juan. “They start to avoid shopping or going to parks, and instead spend more time sitting down. The more they don’t use their legs, the weaker and stiffer the muscles become. And the more unsteady and unbalanced they become, the more fearful they are of walking.”
That’s just the beginning. Pretty soon, Juan adds, most of their days are spent sitting or lying down. But they still have to walk short distances within the house. That’s when part of the problem starts to manifest itself.
Immobility leading to complications
“One day, while just walking from their bed to the bathroom, they lose their balance and fall,” she says. “The bones of old people don’t heal well, so this situation can lead to immobility, which brings with it all kinds of complications like depression, poor circulation, and pneumonia, to name a few. Complications can lead to premature death.”
Out of too much respect for senior citizens or simply because there are too many well-meaning caregivers in the family, Asians, including Filipinos, generally tend to baby their elderly by accommodating their physical weakness in the hope of making them comfortable. This endearing cultural trait can generate its own set of problems.
If lolo or lola can’t reach down to put on his or her socks and shoes, says Juan, what do family members do? Do it for them. Experts advise otherwise.
Rather, says Juan, our dear elderly should be trained and encouraged for them to become stronger. Everything, of course, should be done realistically and based on their diminished capacity to accomplish everyday tasks. But the truth is, one can still learn and adapt to new ways of doing things even as one ages.
“They should be given exercises to make them flexible enough to reach their feet. If you continuously change their environments and lifestyles to adapt to the weakness, they will just get weaker. The new trend in care for the elderly is to train them to become strong and flexible enough to be able to do activities of daily living with ease,” Juan adds.
Then there’s plain old attitude to deal with. Unlike in the previous scenario, this one is within the individual’s control. Like in almost every endeavor in life, it pays to have a positive attitude as one adds another candle to his or her birthday cake. And that includes the right attitude toward exercise.
Attitude has a lot do with either aging gracefully or becoming a premature invalid. Even natural-born pessimists can still shift gears late in life. The choice is yours.
“Examples of the wrong attitude,” says Juan, “are ‘there’s really nothing I can do about it. I’m just getting older,’ ‘Everyone gets weak when he or she gets older,’ ‘I can’t exercise because I’m old’ and ‘exercise is only for the young.’”
Thinking and feeling young doesn’t mean not acting your age. There’s a big difference. Juan’s point is, no one is too old when it comes to exercise and various ways of keeping fit.
“Examples of the right attitude,” she adds, “are ‘I am only as old as I feel,’ ‘If I use it, I won’t lose it,’ ‘The older I am, the more I need to exercise.’ The best motto I ever heard from an older person was ‘I will only stop exercising when I’m dead.’”
Given the benefits of exercise, it’s no longer a question of when, but how. Next time, Tina Juan will give you a list of basic steps to kickstart your own training program.