As time goes on more of us are living longer. The average life span is greater now than ever before. While that means more years, it can also mean more opportunity for chronic conditions and disability.
Many of us have an image of that “classical retirement” in our heads from all those years of television. Happy, healthy, energetic seniors off for that grand tour of Europe or maybe just an afternoon of golf and drinks at the club. However, the reality of aging in today’s real world is that seniors are often burdened with financial stress, must provide for the care and feeding of grandchildren and even their parents, and face a number of threats ranging from mortgage Ponzi schemes to online identity theft.
It takes a sharp, in shape senior to navigate today’s Golden Age. To counter some of the harsher realities of aging we offer here seven tried and true habits and strategies for feeling better as you live longer. Remember, you’re a seasoned veteran who has seen and done a lot in life. Maybe you’re a bit of a tough cookie, but with a heart of gold. In any case, you’re ready for, and deserve, a path to a better older life.
1. Be Active Everyday—No Excuses: Both the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association agree that we as a society have become too sedentary. So the trick is to increase your uptime and to decrease your sit time! But you say "I'm so busy.” Yes, undoubtedly you are busy but think about what you are busy with: sitting in the car, sitting while talking on the phone, sitting at your computer, sitting taking a fun class, sitting having lunch with friends. After being so busy it's hard to go out and be active. Switch it around by going for a short walk in the morning, standing while you are on the phone, limiting your computer and TV screen time and so on. Start small and create easily achievable goals when you begin so you have immediate success. Some movement is always better than none and you’ll be surprised how soon you feel like walking that extra block or doing a few more minutes of gardening. Movement is the building block of increasing your activity. It will also limit undue stress on inactive joints and weak muscles as you get stronger.
2. Birds of a Feather: Remember that saying from your childhood? Well they do flock together so if your friends and family are sitting around you probably are, too. Now we’re not suggesting you disavow your loved ones, but sometimes simply hanging out with active people will help you get active as well. What’s more, friendships are key to successful emotional health and this is especially true as we age. Try getting together with active friends by attending an exercise class or joining a hiking club. You’ll find many like-minded people doing and looking for the same things you desire. At the same time, don’t give up on your sedentary friends. Try inviting them out for a walk after dinner and before you know it they may be taking you to yoga class.
3. Lose those extra pounds. Don't go into your golden years overweight. You know this. Diabetes, joint pain and cardiac conditions are improved when you are at your optimal weight and you have sufficient muscle mass. There are numerous educational support groups, many at low cost, that can offer help. At the heart of it is altering what you eat and of course, being active. So as much as a big juicy hamburger with French fries was comfort food in the past, too frequent consumption of this rich chow truly is killing us. Crash diets are not the answer. Often they can do more harm than good. A gradual progression towards a healthy diet is key. If your family is not jumping on board that is a problem. But your health could become their problem. Think of nutrition as a form of medicine.
4. Get the right tools. Being comfortable and staying safe while increasing your activity is very important. Always wear a helmet if the activity calls for it. Protect against the sun with sunscreen, glasses and hats. Wear comfortable clothing and appropriate footwear. If you’re a little rusty consider a refresher course on your activity. if you’ re unsure about your balance then try something easier like tricycling over bicycling. Want to increase your distance walking? Those Scandinavian's really have something going with walking poles. You may be seeing more and more people walking the streets in Long Beach with poles that look like ski equipment but are distinctly different. It takes a bit of an adjustment but the effort is well worth it.
5. Shoes for your feet. Shoes, especially for women, are a challenge. Don’t be swayed by fashion if the footwear doesn’t fit well and isn’t comfortable. Your feet may be undergoing changes and a supportive shoe can help with those changes. In the end one or two pairs of active footwear will encourage you to be on your feet rather than on your bum.
6. Stay on top of sensory changes. Normal aging does not have to include chronic conditions, weakness or joint pain. But more often than not as we age our sensory systems are likely to change. We are more apt to have a change in our vision as well as changes to the eyes themselves. Our hearing may be challenged and it becomes unpleasant or disorienting to go out to public spaces. We may notice changes in our balance due to a variety of factors. Don't ignore what is going on. Sensory loss may come on slowly but that doesn't mean you can or should avoid seeking help. It might cause you to limit your activity because you are fearful or uncomfortable in surroundings outside your home.
7. Recliner? Think again. Don't get me wrong recliners have their place, especially for medical conditions. But make sure you are going in the right direction when altering your living room furniture to accommodate a recliner. Recliners are made for rest; and they are very effective, so much so, it is difficult to get out of them. Make sure you have other supportive seating in your home like a captain's chair with comfortable cushion and arm rests. This type of seating promotes good posture and is easier to exit than a low slung seat.
Where to start? Your neighborhood. Walk your block every day. As you get comfortable go a little further, change direction, take different routes and go new places. In my neighborhood of Rose Park we have Tai Chi class every Tuesday morning and we are looking forward to a bike boulevard along 6th St. next year. You are more likely to connect with people you know or might develop a relationship with. Respect the days you don't feel so hot and remember that rest, replenishment and recovery are all part of staying active as well. Support your friends and family when they need encouragement. We are in this together and we are all each other’s best reason to stay healthy and active!
Dr. Gretchen Swanson, DPT, MPH - creator of the Long Beach based Health and Function blog: http://healthandfunction.blogspot.com/