“We were created to stay active until the day we die.”
So says Blake Garmon, MD, internal medicine physician with Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital. However, he quickly adds, what “active” looks like will differ from one person to another, depending on various factors. When it comes to active living, everyone should make it a priority, but one size definitely does not fit all.
“When you think about physical fitness, you should think about not just your cardiovascular capacity or how much weight you can lift,” says Dr. Garmon. “Those things are important, certainly, but so are other questions about your physical capacity.”
Other factors to consider involve questions like these: How flexible am I? How mobile? Can I easily bend down to pick something up? Do I have enough balance to bend over without falling? If I’m on the floor for some reason, can I get up without assistance?
While such questions mostly apply to older adults, younger people also are increasingly facing their own health challenges—problems like obesity and Type 2 diabetes, which used to be seen almost exclusively in older, sedentary adults.
To enjoy optimal health, people of every age group should find out what active living means for them, and then get busy identifying ways to increase their activity levels.
The Importance of Staying Active Early
Youngsters usually have seemingly boundless energy, so being active might seem to be a nonissue for them. Times have changed, however.
“Maybe a generation ago it wasn’t as much of a problem for children to get enough exercise, and for some children today it still isn’t,” says Joseph Sorenson, MD, a pediatric hospitalist with Sentara RMH Medical Center. “But we pediatricians regularly see how the use of electronics—what some call ‘screen time’—has made it much more challenging for children to get adequate exercise. Kids these days are spending more and more time on their devices, and less and less time being active.”
As evidence, Dr. Sorenson cites the increasing incidence among younger people, even teenagers, of chronic conditions like obesity, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. To combat this disturbing trend, he says, parents need to ensure that their children are getting adequate exercise—at least 60 minutes of activity almost every day of the week.
That recommendation applies to children of all ages, from toddlers to teens. Getting enough physical activity is essential for building strong bones and muscles, but it also helps children avoid some chronic health conditions that can shorten their lives, says Dr. Sorenson.
One of the most crucial things parents can do to help their children stay fit is to limit screen time and set definite expectations about the minimum amount of daily activity they should be getting.
“When iPads, TVs and computers are turned off, kids are usually more active. Many experts recommend setting a limit of 30-60 minutes of screen time per day for kids—even those as young as two,” notes Dr. Sorenson. “And setting limits on screen time in a child’s early years is key, as it’s going to be much harder to implement that kind of limitation with older children.”
Getting children to be more active could mean just sending them outside to play, but Dr. Sorenson recommends that families do certain activities together. Bicycling, taking walks, hiking and shooting hoops are great activities for both children and their parents.
“Parents need to reinforce the expectation that ‘just sitting around’ isn’t acceptable,” he adds. “Finding activities that you like to do, both individually and as a group, will make exercise seem less like a chore and more like a fun time to be enjoyed by all.”
With a greater level of activity established as part of a daily routine, parents might then incorporate screen time into their children’s daily routines as just one other activity among many—but not the primary activity. “For instance, parents might allow their children 30 minutes of screen time following 30 minutes of outdoor activity,” says Dr. Sorenson.
Maintaining Health as Adults
Research consistently shows that physical activity and exercise help reduce our risk of heart attacks, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis and obesity, says Dr. Garmon. There’s also plenty of evidence that activity can improve our moods and help us avoid or manage depression.
For adults, the recommended minimum amount of vigorous activity is 30 minutes at least four or five days a week, if not every day. Those 30 minutes don’t have to take place all at the same time, either. A person could do 10 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity three times a day, or do 20 minutes in one session and then 10 minutes in another. Regardless, Dr. Garmon notes, it’s important to recognize that 30 minutes is the bare daily minimum.
“Active living is about more than just increasing vigorous activity,” continues Dr. Garmon. “We’re also talking about decreasing the amount of sedentary time we spend each day. If you’re doing some type of vigorous physical activity for 30 minutes several days a week, that’s great. But if you’re pretty much sitting on the sofa the rest of the time, that’s not good.”
The point of active living is to watch for opportunities to move and do something physical. So if you’re watching TV, get up and do something during commercials—perhaps walk around the house, go up and down the stairs several times, or stretch and flex your muscles.
“If you’re really motivated, do some pushups,” says Dr. Garmon. “The goal is to reduce the amount of time you’re sedentary.”
Organized Sports and Gyms
Both Dr. Garmon and Dr. Sorenson agree that participating in organized or team sports is an excellent way to increase activity levels and add greater variety to daily routines. Even so, people need to make sure they’re getting the recommended minimum each week throughout the course of the year.
“It’s great for parents to get their children involved in things like soccer and peewee football,” says Dr. Sorenson. “The problem is that most of those activities are only going to take place a few months out of the year—so what are the kids going to do for the rest of the year?”
For adults, too, participating in team sports can be great fun and a source of motivation. But unless we’re engaging in a sport almost every day, we should seek other ways to be active on our “off” days, or if our sport is seasonal, says Dr. Garmon.
Gym memberships can be an excellent way to stay active at all ages, but not everyone finds that kind of setting appealing. People who are reluctant to go to the gym should consider working out at home.
“Anyone can turn their living room into a gym with minimal effort and expense,” says Dr. Garmon. “You don’t have to have a lot of expensive equipment. All you really need is your body and a floor, because you can use your own body weight to do floor exercises, yoga, lunges and core exercises. There are a number of good exercise videos and websites online that teach people how to use their own body weight to work out.”
Whatever their activities, adults should be looking to achieve a few important goals: building or maintaining muscle and bone strength through some form of resistance training; improving cardiovascular fitness through activities like walking, swimming or jogging; and enhancing balance and flexibility by doing stretching exercises, yoga poses, tai chi and similar activities.
“I encourage my patients to follow a well-rounded physical fitness routine that helps them achieve all of those fitness objectives,” says Dr. Garmon.
Adapting to Circumstances
Physical activities can be beneficial for people of all health conditions, but it’s still important to be safe. Those with limited mobility due to arthritis or musculoskeletal problems should seek advice from their doctor or a physical therapist about exercise activities that fit their abilities and needs. And people who find activity difficult due to excessive weight might consider pool exercises, which can help take some of the stress off of joints.
Activities should be appropriate for a person’s age, as well. Weight training for children under age 12, for instance, might not be the best activity, says Dr. Sorenson. Instead, younger children should rely on their own body weight and regular play to help develop strong bones and muscles.
Elderly people, too, may need to adapt or curtail certain activities to fit their abilities. “Our joints become less mobile, and we tend to lose muscle and bone mass as we age,” explains Dr. Garmon. “Those changes can put older adults at increased risk of injury—especially due to falling. But exercise, properly and safely executed, can also help to reduce those risks.”
In fact, he says, enhancing mobility and balance, as well as building muscular strength around the joints—especially the knees, hips and shoulders—are essential factors for preventing falls as we get older. Weight-bearing exercises can help seniors build that strength, but if they’re at risk for injuring themselves, Dr. Garmon recommends that they use their own body weight or work out with stationary weight machines, rather than using free weights.
“Even just standing up and sitting down repeatedly at the kitchen table can help build strength in the hip and knee muscles,” he says. “And if you feel wobbly, you can place your hands on the table to steady yourself.”
Active living doesn’t necessarily have an upper age limit. Even people in their 80s and 90s should remain as active as they reasonably can. However, older adults should check with their physician before beginning a vigorous exercise routine, particularly if they have heart disease, arthritis, diabetes or other medical problems.
“Whether you’re in excellent health or have a health problem, set modest goals and begin slowly—especially if you’re older and not used to regular exercise,” advises Dr. Garmon.
Exercise shouldn’t be just another chore we have to get through, says Dr. Sorenson. If staying active is something we or our children dread, commitment is bound to wane.
“Any activity is better than no activity, and that’s true at any age,” adds Dr. Sorenson. “Find activities you enjoy, individually or as a group. At the same time, be open to trying new activities and new sports—the key is to keep on being active, and to make it fun for everyone.”