You may be getting enough exercise, but is it the right kind?

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, a balanced exercise program is essential for long-term health. In addition to regular aerobic activity, you should also include these activities:

- Strength training not only develops muscle tone, it also improves bone density and protects the joints. More muscle mass means a better metabolism which is essential for maintaining a healthy weight.

- Flexibility and agility exercises improve balance and posture and increase your body’s range of motion — all of which are important for preventing strains, injuries and falls.

- Relaxation techniques lower blood pressure and can help improve the immune system. They promote relaxation and lower stress.

Found a few holes in your routine? One of these fitness classes might be just the thing:

Aquafit

Also known as “aqua aerobics” or “water aerobics”, these classes provide the same cardiovascular workout as a regular aerobics class — minus the strain on the body. The water cushions and massages the muscles while at the same time providing a low- or no-impact cardio workout. A typical 45 – 50 minute class includes stretching and strength exercises that use the natural resistance of water instead of weights or machines. Deep water classes tend to be more challenging than shallow, but your abdominal muscles will get a good workout. You can go at your own pace, and it won’t be obvious if you miss a step in the routine.

Runners and power walkers can also move their routines indoors when the weather gets cold. Check out Pool Walking for more information on this trend.

Strength Training

Still picturing intimidating images of muscle-bound athletes and heavy barbells? You’ll be happy to know that this area of fitness has come a long way. Think controlled movements, small weights, resistance bands, exercise balls and user-friendly training machines.

Classes are available for all ages and fitness levels, and many exercises can be adapted or customized to suit any special needs due to an injury or medical condition. Seated or floor mat activities are good for people who may have limited mobility. Classes that focus on the “core” target the torso, abdominal and back for better strength and stability, which in turn protects from the risk of injury. Try a “sampler” or “total body conditioning” class for a more comprehensive program.

Still skeptical of the benefits? Take a look at 10 years younger with strength training

Tai Chi

If you’ve never seen a tai chi class in action, picture a series of poses and slow movements that gracefully flow from one to the next. Often described as “meditation in motion”, this series of traditional Chinese movement exercises can help reduce stress, improve energy and stamina and increase flexibility. These gentle exercises focus on technique and breathing, and won’t be a strain on the muscles or joints.

Some research even suggests that tai chi boosts immunity and offers some natural resistance to the shingles virus. It can slow bone loss in women after menopause. (See the The benefits of Tai Chi for more information.)

Yoga

Don’t worry, you won’t have to tie yourself into knots. In fact, yoga will help you do the opposite with its focus on breathing and meditation. Even if you don’t adhere to diet, behaviour and philosophy, the exercises promote a peaceful state of mind and a more flexible body. Yoga has also been shown to improve sleep and memory as well as reduce stress, and it’s good for many chronic conditions such as asthma, back pain and depression. It’s also recommended for caregivers and those coping with cancer because it promotes relaxation. It can even help you improve your golf swing.

There are many different styles and intensities of yoga, but the Mayo Clinic recommends hatha yoga for people trying to reduce stress because controlling and focusing on breathing is a major component. For more information about other options, see Understanding the different types of yoga.

Pilates

Originally designed for dancers, this program focuses on developing the core muscles — the lower back, abdominal muscles, buttocks, inner thighs, pelvic floor and diaphragm. The result? Better stability, control and balance and support for the spinal column. The program complements strength training programs by focusing on the muscle groups that might not get as much development. Pilates creates long, lean muscles rather than bulk, and tones key areas that make you look slimmer.

The exercises consist of slow, controlled movements with a focus on posture and breathing. The Pilates Association of Canada recommends at least two sessions a week, though three or four are better. You’ll start to see the results within the eight to 10 week span of the class.

For more information, see the Pilates Association of Canada website.

Dancing

The key to sticking with any exercise regime is finding things you enjoy. Square dancing, line dancing and ballroom dancing classes are fun and social activities that won’t even seem like exercise. In the meantime, you’ll be toning your muscles and developing your coordination. You can even explore your sensual side with belly dancing or pole dancing. For more information, see Strip and shake those pounds away.

“Boot Camp”

If you’re looking for a challenge, try a “boot camp” that’s appropriate for your age and skill level. These weekly sessions at a gym or recreation centre typically involve “circuit” training (progressing through a series of aerobic and strength training activities) or “interval” training (alternating between high and low intensity to vary your heart rate). These types of activities promote weight loss and fat burning. Boot camp is a fairly generic term, so find out what’s involved before you sign up.

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Hybrids

Looking to add some “spin” to your yoga class? Or some dance to your Pilates routine? According to a recent article on MSNBC, gyms are always looking for innovative ways to draw customers — and one of the latest fitness trends is classes that combine different forms of exercise in fun and unusual ways. The classes usually consist of a cardio component combined with strength or flexibility. For example, Cy-yo or Yogaride classes combine cycling with yoga, and Gyrotonic classes throw in some tai chi, yoga, Pilates and dance with strength exercises. In other words, these classes include all of the elements of a balanced exercise program.

If you’re thinking of joining a gym, pay careful attention to what classes are offered and find out what’s suitable to your interests and schedule.

What to look for:

There are many reasons to take a class, including expert instruction and the opportunity to meet new people. You’ll want to keep these things in mind when you register:

- Age limits. Many areas offer a wide variety of classes specially designed for people 50 and over, or for people who want to participate with their children or grandchildren.

- Class size. Smaller classes mean more personalized attention, which is especially important when you are mastering proper form and movement.

- Drop-in or regular times. Drop-in classes offer the most flexibility and give you the chance to try new activities without a commitment. However, many classes are cumulative (that is they build on skills learned in the previous session) so you’ll want some continuity, and you may want a consistent instructor to monitor your progress.

- Where the class is held. Look for classes held at local recreation centres, churches or schools — they’re often less expensive than specialized studios or spas.

- Qualified instructors. Don’t be shy about asking for qualifications, especially where strength and flexibility are the focus. Many programs/methods such as yoga and Pilates have strict certification requirements. If you have special needs or concerns, see if your instructor has experience adapting or adjusting exercises.

- Equipment. You may need a special mat, exercise ball or other equipment in addition to suitable garb. Find out what is provided and what you might need to bring with you. A water bottle is a must.

People of all ages are generally cautioned to check with their doctors before starting a new fitness routine, especially where certain medical conditions are concerned. Other than selecting a class that suits your abilities, the most important thing is to find an activity you’ll enjoy.

ON THE WEB
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Seniors and Exercise
The Mayo Clinic Fitness Center

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/iofoto

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by:
Elizabeth Rogers