It can’t be emphasized enough: engaging in physical activity is the single most important thing you can do to maintain mobility and independence, no matter your age or your health status. It can help you control your weight. It’s the key to keeping your muscles and bones strong, your joints working properly, your heart healthy, and your metabolism revved. The more you move, the better your strength and balance will be, and the less likely you will be to fall or lose the ability to perform basic daily functions. And that’s on top of all the other health benefits of regular exercise, such as reduced risks of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. Exercise even has positive effects on mood and may help improve cognitive function.
In addition to doing targeted exercises for muscle strength and flexibility, joint health, and balance, you should strive to increase routine daily physical activities that aren’t formal exercise, such as climbing stairs. If you’re in pain, all this activity may seem impossible. But in many cases, exercise actually helps reduce the pain. If you have osteoarthritis, for example, regular exercise not only helps maintain joint function, but also helps relieve stiffness and diminishes pain and fatigue. Maintaining muscle strength can also help dampen stresses on joints.
How much exercise do you need? For healthy adults, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise a week, with activity every day. The guidelines also recommend twice-weekly strength training sessions and balance exercises for older adults at risk of falling. Disability should not be a reason to refrain from all activity. The guidelines state: "When older adults cannot do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week because of chronic conditions, they should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow." Even modest efforts count. "Move more and sit less throughout the day," the guidelines advise. "Some activity is better than none."
The key is finding activities you can do and enjoy. If your joints are the problem, don’t try to "pace" your joints—let your joints pace you. For example, don’t make yourself go jogging. Instead, pick low-impact activities, such as swimming or water aerobics. Try cycling on a stationary bike at the gym or at home. Yoga, tai chi, and qigong are other good alternatives. Even a gentle walking program that ramps up slowly will help. In other words, there’s a lot of flexibility in the kinds of activities you do and when. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t do the same kinds of activities you used to. The important thing is not to let joint pain keep you from being physically active.
If you’re in doubt about your ability to take on even a modest exercise program, we recommend filling out the Get Active Questionnaire (GAQ), a tool developed by the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology to help people determine whether they should talk to a doctor before embarking on, or ramping up, an exercise program. You can find it at /GAQ. Be sure to talk to your doctor about whether it’s safe to exercise if any of the following apply:
- You’ve had hip or knee surgery.
- You’ve been experiencing pain in your hip, knee, foot and ankle, or back.
- You have a chronic or unstable health condition, such as heart disease, or you have a respiratory ailment, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes, or several risk factors for heart disease.
For more on how to preserve your mobility so you can stay active, buy Mobility and Independence, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.
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