Marilyn Moffat, PhD, PT
We all know that exercise is good for us, but some ways of exercising are particularly effective... and they don’t require time-consuming maneuvers or expensive equipment.
Are you out of breath after walking up a flight of stairs? Do you feel discomfort or pain when looking over your shoulder as you back up a car? Is it becoming difficult to reach the top shelves of closets? Or after having sat through a movie, do you feel pain or stiffness when you stand up? Any "yes" answer means that exercise would be especially beneficial for you.
TO INCREASE FLEXIBILITY
Test: Put one arm over your shoulder, and reach behind your back. Then bring your other arm up behind your back, and try to touch the fingers of the hand that went over your shoulder.
Goal: To increase the flexibility of your arms, especially your shoulders.
Exercise: The "test" is also an exercise. Perform it several times a day, holding the stretch 30 seconds, then reversing your arms. Soon your fingers will easily touch. At that point, it’s OK to reduce the frequency until you reach a level where you can consistently touch fingers.
Exercise for lower back and hamstring muscles: Sit toward the front of a chair with one leg stretched out straight with toes pulled toward you, and the other leg bent to a right angle at the hip and knee. With one hand on top of the other, reach your hands toward the toes of the straight leg.
Important: If you have osteoporosis or have had an upper-back fracture, do not do this exercise.
FOR BETTER POSTURE
Test: Stand with your back as flush as possible against a wall and both heels touching it. When you’re in that position, does your head easily touch the wall? If it doesn’t, you could use some work on posture, which can be vital to overall physical health.
Goal: To improve posture as quickly as possible.
Exercise: Once or twice daily, sit in a supportive chair, chin tucked in toward your chest. Breathe in as you bend your elbows at your sides and close your fingers in a relaxed fist. Gently press your elbows back into the chair. Stay in that position for 10 seconds as you continue to breathe deeply. Do not move. Breathe in again as you release the position slowly. Begin with three repetitions and build to 10 or 20.
Once your head effortlessly touches a wall when you stand against it, you’ll know that your posture has improved. At that point, reduce the number of times you perform the exercise.
By experimenting with the frequency of the exercise, you can determine how many times you need to do it in order to maintain good posture. Keep in mind, however, that as you age, the number of times required will nearly always increase slightly from year to year.
FOR MORE STRENGTH
Test: In 30 seconds, how many times can you stand up from and sit down in a chair with your arms crossed on your chest?
Goal: Women between the ages of 60 and 64 should be able to stand and sit 12 to 17 times in 30 seconds. Men of that age should be able to perform the task 15 to 20 times. The benchmark drops slightly as your age increases.
Exercise: Perform the test two or three times a day until you can easily stand and sit within the benchmark range. Then do the exercise once every other day to keep in shape.
Also helpful: Unless you have problems with your hips and knees, walk up and down a flight of stairs two or three more times a day than you normally would.
To strengthen the arms, weighted dumbbells may be used. You should seek the guidance of a physical therapist before you start any weight training so that you perform the motions correctly and also use the correct amount of weight. An alternative to using weights is using elastic bands that can be cut into appropriate lengths for both arm and leg exercises. (See my book Age-Defying Fitness for many exercises with weights and elastic bands.)
Advantages of elastic bands: Unlike weights, there’s no danger in dropping an elastic band when you exercise. Also, you can easily take an elastic strip with you when you travel.
Thera-Band strips, about six inches wide, are available from many retailers that sell exercise equipment and from distributors (800-321-2135, www.thera-band.com).
Price: About $40 for 25 yards.
How to do it: Run the elastic band under the seat of an armless chair from side to side. Sit in the chair, and hold one end of the band in each hand. Then raise your arms high over your head, stretching the band as you do so and also breathing out. Cut the Thera-Band strip to a length that lets you perform a set of eight to 12 stretches before tiring. Perform one or two sets of these exercises three times a week.
FOR BETTER BALANCE
Test: Cross your arms on your chest, then see how long you can stand on one leg. Then test the other leg.
Goal: To remain standing for at least 30 seconds. If you can’t, your balance needs improving.
Exercise: Hold on to the counter with one hand and stand on your toes. Then, bend one knee back so that you’re standing on your toes with one leg. After doing it only a few times, you may not need to hold on to the counter with your hand. Also try to rise up and down on your toes five to 10 times while standing on one leg.
TO INCREASE ENDURANCE
Test: Assuming that you do not have any heart or lung problems, try to march in place for two minutes, bringing your knees about halfway up to the level of your hips. Count only the number of times you bring your right knee up.
Goal: In two minutes, women ages 60 to 64 should be able to bring up the right knee between 75 and 107 times. For men of that age, the benchmark is between 87 and 115 times.
Exercise: March in place several times a week, slowly increasing the number of steps you take in each two-minute period. Traditional exercises, such as walking, running and bicycling, are also effective in building up endurance. Or use a treadmill or stationary bike. Whatever your choice of endurance exercise, you should gradually build up to 30 to 45 minutes each session anywhere from three to seven days a week.