The best resolution you can make isn’t about food

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As a proud member of the generation of older women who want to maximize health, I look for all possible ways to achieve that goal. While food and nutrition are a key piece of this puzzle, exercise is essential. In fact, I think it may have a slight edge over nutrition. The evidence is piling up daily on the benefits of physical activity, as well as on the devastating impact of our sedentary lives on our well being. Everything from heart disease to weight to diabetes to hypertension and recently to cognitive function is linked to exercise.

So my recommendation for a New Year’s resolution that will have maximum impact: exercise. Do something everyday. Several times a day. Mix it up; participate in different activities. They’re all important and beneficial.

At our age, participating in different types of activity is a particularly good idea:

  • Core Strength: from weight machines, yoga, fitness classes, Pilates
  • Aerobic fitness: walking, jogging, bicycling, swimming, hiking, XC skiing
  • Flexibility and balance: yoga, Pilates, stretching, fitness classes
  • Muscle Strength: weight lifting and weight machines
  • FUN! Dancing, sports, games. These types of activities keep you active while also challenging your brain and teaching new skills

Don’t imagine that because you haven’t done any or all of these activities you can’t start because you’re too old. You can start at any age and see benefits. There’s actual research to back that up. You don’t have to do everything at once either. Pick the activities you’re most likely to incorporate in your life with little fuss.

And lest you still doubt the power of physical activity, here’s a really sweet story about using stationary cycles for people with Alzheimer’s. A care home in England uses the cycles to take residents on virtual cycling trips, boosting well-being and happiness. This is such a wonderful use of technology. The residents don’t have to physically go anywhere, they can be supervised for safety, and they get the benefit of virtual travel as well as physical activity.

Here’s more evidence for the cognitive benefits of exercise. A study published last month looked at the effect of exercise or diet on cognitive function in sedentary older adults. Result: the exercise group showed significant improvements in executive function. which is a measure of cognitive ability.

Then there are the well known benefits to heart health, diabetes risk, hypertension, strength and mood. The better your fitness and balance and core strength, the less likely you are to experience falls.

So here’s my resolution recommendation

  • If you’re already reasonably active, stay active. Perhaps add some new and different activities if you have the opportunity.
  • If you’re basically sedentary, think about your options and get moving. Do you have a local recreation/senior center you can use? Can you get out for walks? Do you have a bicycle and a place to ride safely?
  • If you have access to classes that focus on flexibility and stretching, such as yoga, give them a try. Most senior centers now offer special yoga classes for older people. And keep in mind, yoga is not about competition. So someone else can stretch more or hold a pose longer, so what. Yoga is about you doing what you can do, period.
  • Find exercise buddies if you’ll feel more motivated with some company.

Finally: exercise isn’t for thin, fit people! It’s for everyone. And you don’t need to wear special exercise clothes. Wear comfortable clothes. Don’t create false barriers to being physically active. I’ve seen people at my rec center carrying portable oxygen packs, using a cane to move between machines, wearing braces on their legs or using walkers. They know the value of being active, whatever shape they’re in.

Being physically active is always important. It may be even more important for us as we age. We’re only now understanding that importance. It used to be that older people (especially women) were expected to just rest, to basically sit all day, losing strength. The assumption was that old people just become weak. And of course, if you sit all day long, you will become weak after a pretty short time. That attitude is so 19th century. Let’s all move on and use 21st century knowledge to age better.