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Healthy Aging: To Stay Physically Active, Better Start Early

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Unlike their predecessors, baby boomers will remain as physically and mentally active as ever, even as they retire from their day jobs. 60 and 70-year-olds will continue to push boundaries, explore and experiment, travel the world, play sports, and stay healthy and fit far longer than what has been considered possible only a generation or two ago – or so we are told by an onslaught of literature, advertisements and workshops for active retirement, declaring the twilight years as the best of all times.

The truth is that many retirees find it hard to stay active at all after having lived sedentary lifestyles for most of their lives.

How active people will continue to be largely depends on the kind of jobs they are retiring from, according to Dr. Stephen Kritchevsky, a professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine and director of the Sticht Center of Aging at Wake Forest Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

For most people, retirement is a very important change in life, which can bring about new opportunities but also pitfalls. Retirees have more time on their hands to take care of their health needs, which can yield important dividends long-term, he said to Reuters Health. But it’s not a given that everyone will begin a healthy exercise regimen if he or she has not done so before.

A study from England examined differences in physical activity habits between working and retired participants and found that most of those who lead a sedentary life continued to do so after retiring, and that those who were more active in their younger years usually kept to their routines after they stopped working.

Although it seems that sedentary working conditions and lifestyles prime many people for lack of movement as they grow older, the slower pace of retirement can also be a “critical window” for encouraging older adults to become more active, according to Dr. Alan Godfrey, a researcher at the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University and lead author of the study report.

One of the most important things retiring people must do is to plan carefully how they intend to fill their days. Pursuing old dreams, developing new interests, taking up new sports and other activities may sound wonderful, but some of those projects may be unrealistic for a number of reasons, including physical limitations and other health concerns.

Naturally, the healthier and fitter you are by the time you get to your golden years, the more you will be able to accomplish. But acting age-appropriately should also be a consideration, no matter how well you have (or think you have) been able to preserve your vigor.

But regardless of personal history, physical exercise is a crucial component of healthy aging. Whether you just want to feel better and have more energy, or whether longevity is your goal, age-appropriate exercise can be beneficial on multiple levels. It helps you control your weight, strengthens your immune system, enhances mobility, promotes better sleep, keeps your sex life going, and may even protect you against age-related memory loss and dementia. But the earlier you start a regular program and stick with it, the better your chances will be that it will do you a lot of good.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading "Adjusting Diet and Exercise to a Slowing Metabolism" and "Healthy Aging: Exercising the Body Benefits the Mind, Too."

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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