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The best heart healthy workouts for your 60s 70s and 80s

APR 2014

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Learn safe cardiovascular exercise routines to help you maintain lifelong good health.

Whether you're spry at 80 or slowing down at 65, there is a safe, healthy exercise routine with your name on it. Even if you've had a long history of not exercising, there are compelling reasons to get active no matter what your age. "The fitter and more active you are, the longer you'll live and less heart disease you'll have," says Dr. Aaron Baggish, a cardiologist and fitness expert at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Your starting point

To begin, take a hard look at your current level of activity. "I tell people the first thing they can do is to be conscious of their choice to move or not to move. They should try to move whenever possible. Build activity into your day simply by deciding to take the stairs versus the elevator or walking through an airport instead of hopping on the moving walkway," says Dr. Baggish. While everyday chores such as gardening, housework, and washing the car help you burn calories, they are not a substitute for structured, intentional exercise, says Dr. Baggish.

If you are already somewhat active or have a job that requires movement, the next step is to create a structured exercise program that suits your lifestyle. Dr. Baggish starts by asking his patients to identify the times during the day they can exercise. Next, the conversation moves to the resources they have at their disposal. For example, does their workplace or senior center have a fitness facility? If not, do they have access to an enclosed, weather-safe place to walk?

Designing your plan

The next big question: what do you do? For people in the 60- to 80-year-old age group, Dr. Baggish recommends an 80–20 split between moderate aerobic activity and resistance exercise. Moderate aerobic exercise can be anything from brisk walking to cycling, dance, or a Zumba class. "The ideal aerobic intensity permits you to have broken conversation—that is, being able to get out four or five words between breaths," he says. "Less than that, you're probably pushing yourself too hard. But if you can converse in whole sentences, you're not reaping the full cardiovascular benefits."

Resistance exercises—those activities that build your muscles—haven't been shown to have a large direct benefit on heart health. Nonetheless, there are many advantages to investing 20% of your exercise time in strength training. Not only does it help you increase your muscle and core strength, it improves your flexibility and helps protect against falls, which can be disabling for older adults. Anything that can be done with only your body is fine for just about everyone, regardless of your age or starting fitness level. Good movements to try include squatting, push-ups, arm reaches, and lifts. If your doctor gives you the okay to do more strenuous training, choose exercises at an intensity you can maintain for 12 repetitions without stopping. The aim is to work up to three sets of each exercise.

Expanding your routine

Ideally, you should exercise for one hour, five times a week. Although this level may not be realistic for everyone, it's good goal to work toward. A thorough workout would include five or 10 minutes of light aerobic activity to raise your heart rate and get you warmed up, at least 30 minutes of activity at moderate intensity, and a few minutes of cooling down to allow your heart to return to its resting pace. Dr. Baggish says that many of his patients feel better and stronger if they include five to seven minutes of stretching after their workout, when their muscles are warm.

In addition, Dr. Baggish enthusiastically recommends integrating yoga into your exercise regimen. "The beauty of yoga is that anyone of any physical capacity can do some type of yoga. People of all ages, whether they are in a wheelchair or have bad joint problems, can do yoga because it allows them to set their pace and priorities." But, like any form of activity, be sure to start at a comfortable level and challenge yourself if you're up to it.

Talking to your doctor

If you don't have particular medical concerns, a program of moderate walking and strength training is a safe way to go. If you have arthritis or other musculoskeletal issues or if you have heart disease, talk to your doctor before you start. And with any activity, you should ramp up to a more intense level gradually, as you feel ready. "Most of all, remember that something is better than nothing and there is no age when it's too late to start," concludes Dr. Baggish.