Regular exercise is the best thing we can do for ourselves. Here are some rules to actively live by.

According to Donald M. Vickery, MD, author of Live Young, Think Young, Be Young … At Any Age, “We need to become more aware of how sedentary we have become and how that is affecting us.” Adaptation to disuse is relentless, he adds. “It undermines our stamina and strength, and it makes us feel stiff and sluggish. Our body is designed to be active every day; we feel better when we are active.”

And the simple rewards of it all. Vickery goes on to explain, “When we use our muscles or exercise our heart and lungs or stretch, it feels so good afterward. It is simply the best thing we can do for ourselves.” So think active, says the good doctor.

Rules to Live By: Becoming More Active

1. A little goes a long way.

This is one of the most overlooked rules for reversing physical disuse. Every little bit of movement helps. Moderation is really the key because it can become a habit. Adaptations occur daily – so the key is being active daily. Just walking a little more, stretching a little, doing a few push-ups for upper body strength and doing some knee bends for lower body strength can make such a difference.

 2. Use a strategy, rather than an exercise prescription, to become more active.

There are many different exercise prescriptions for losing weight, building muscle, improving your 10K run time and so on. We’re not endorsing any specific program but rather a strategy for life that leads to a new way of thinking about using your body and being active. The strategy is based on this set of rules. It is about self-managing how you use your body, using it more and in different ways and focusing on the positive effects. A specific exercise program can be part of your strategy, but that is not the primary focus.

3. Have long-term goals for both health and fitness.

Health and fitness are both improved when we become more active or begin an exercise program. It’s never one or the other; health and fitness are linked to the same set of positive adaptations that make our body function more efficiently. Disuse undermines both health and fitness. Health and fitness have different measures and goals: health is related to the three megacauses [constricted circulation, metabolic madness and insidious inflammation] and disease processes, and fitness is about functioning, reserve capacity and quality of life. Take steps to improve both, knowing that whatever you do for one will help the other.

4. Seize the NEAT opportunities – adopt the principle of every opportunity.

Increasing non-exercise activity costs little in time or money or change. It’s an attitude about being active. As such it is the key to our new way of thinking: embracing the concept that any increase in activity has health benefits. The “principle of every opportunity” means grasping every opportunity to be a little more active. Think active. And remember that starting an exercise program doesn’t give you a free pass to become less active in other parts of your life. NEAT [non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or all movement other than planned exercise] burns more calories and has health benefits beyond exercise.

5. Reducing inactivity is an easy way to become more active.

Differences in NEAT are largely a matter of time spent sitting or lying down. We sit more than ever, especially those who commute to desk jobs. Become aware of this time and find ways to break it up – this is the first step toward reducing inactivity. We’ve become less active in other ways too – activities that we used to do but have given up (e.g., skiing, playing basketball), chores that we used to do but now hire out (e.g., cleaning gutters, painting the house), time spent on the computer, watching TV, driving and so on.

6. Pay attention to your posture and breathing.

How we stand, sit, walk, and breathe are habits that we develop over time. This is the heart of “use determines function.” Think of all of these functions in an old, frail person – the slumping posture, the slow gait, the shallow breathing. They are all adaptations to a manner of use. Become aware of how you hold your body and how you are breathing in everything you do, whenever you think about it. This helps you focus on the present moment, which really is all we can control. Think tall, head pulled upward (as if on a string), shoulders back, abs slightly pulled in. Think deeper, slower breathing, feeling your stomach and ribs expand as your lungs fill completely. Make these habits. The more you do them consciously, the sooner they will become subconscious behaviors. Feel the sensation of relaxation and increased energy that result.

7. Walk with a purpose.

Our usual walking gait slows with age. This is another hallmark of “aging.” A slower “normal” walking gait usually means more weakness, less capacity and an increased risk for disability and disease. Remember that our goal is strength. A simple way to promote strength is to walk like a younger person, sort of like you’re late for a meeting. Combine walking with a purpose with deeper breathing and a taller, stronger posture.

8. Endurance, flexibility, strength … and the greatest of these is strength.

Anyone over age 50 grew up in the age of aerobics. There is no doubt that aerobic exercise is vital for cardiovascular health. However, a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. The greatest challenges and opportunities switched to increasing strength, a proposition endorsed by no less an expert than Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the father of aerobics. This is not to say that endurance activities are no longer of value – quite the contrary. It only emphasizes the increasing importance of maintaining muscle mass and the vitality of muscle cells as we age. Disuse raises havoc with them, just as they thrive on increased use. Increasing overall strength is the key to a healthy metabolism, well-functioning joints, strong bones, and a greater capacity for work and fun. All of these are essential for a high quality of life in later years.

9. Distraction is the name of the game.

The great enemies of exercise are discomfort and boredom. Fun is the ideal solution, but distraction is probably a more practical and useful goal on a daily basis. Diverting your attention away from the discomfort and boredom of exercise is the most successful approach to these problems. Depending on the type of exercise you’re doing, reading, watching TV, listening to music or an audio book and having a partner to visit with are all effective ways to distract you and keep you going.

10. Safety does not depend on your doctor.

There is usually no need for a physical examination before increasing exercise or NEAT, assuming you take a very gradual approach. There are a few exceptions, however:

• If you have no idea what your health status is.
• If you’re having symptoms that you do not completely understand.
• If you have other health concerns, have advanced disease or take multiple medications.

In these cases, it makes sense to talk to your doctor about your plans to see whether you should take any special precautions, especially if you’re thinking about a specific exercise program. However, there’s seldom a need for an exercise stress test just to see whether you can safely become more active. There is more risk in remaining inactive than in becoming more active. Just don’t try to do too much too soon. Safety in exercise is best assured by following the self-managing approach – allowing your body to adapt to reasonable, simple goals of gradually increasing activity.

11. Find activities that you enjoy or at least distractions that you enjoy.

 There are dozens of ways to become more active. Don’t listen to the “experts” who advocate one specific program. The “do it my way” approach is not supported by data and doesn’t make good common sense either. We’re all different and we all ‘have different interests and preferences. More variety is better. It provides a wider range of stimuli to more muscle cells as well as brain cells, bone cells, and others. Ultimately, we do the things we enjoy, so the key is finding something you enjoy or at least distractions that you look forward to.

12. Listen to your body.

It is more important to do what feels right than to do what someone else thinks you should do. Coax your body into becoming more active rather than push it. If you allow your body to adapt gradually, you will get to the point where it will crave movement and stretching when you have been inactive for a while. Your body is meant to move; when it is awakened from its sedentary slumber, it will recall the good feelings of movement. Listen to your body – when you feel stiffness, it needs stretching; when you feel fatigue, it needs oxygen or aerobic exercise; when you feel weak, your muscles need strengthening; when you feel the pain of injury or the discomfort of illness, you need rest.

13. Time management is easier than you thought.

“Not enough time” is the No. 1 excuse for not being more active. There’s a good reason for that – poor time management. Time for exercise or activity is easy to put off. Allocating time for exercise, however, becomes easier when we realize the payoffs – more energy and greater productivity, which actually saves time in the long run. We’re able to accomplish more in less time, so we end up with more quality time. Besides, it doesn’t require a great time commitment to get great results. However, if you can’t get over the time barrier, focus on increasing NEAT. We all have time for that.

14. Don’t let the monitoring mess get to you.

We’ve got to measure progress because it keeps us going. Without progress, motivation fades. The question is what to measure. That depends on your priorities. If your goal is just to become more active, then measure your steps with a pedometer or the time you spend in certain activities (both active and inactive). If lowering blood pressure is a priority, then monitor it at home. If losing fat is the goal, then waist circumference, BMI or pants size can be measured. If fitness is the goal, then use measures of endurance and cardiovascular efficiency (e.g., heart rate, time and distance walked), strength (e.g., resistance, repetitions) and flexibility (e.g., stretching distance). A few simple measures will help you stay on track. And, they can show you how quickly you adapt to disuse when you become inactive for any reason.


Excerpted with permission from Live Young, Think Young, Be Young … At Any Age by Donald M. Vickery, MD, Larry Matson, Ed.D., and Carol Vickery, RN, MSN. Copyright 2012, Bull Publishing Company (Boulder, Colo.).

This excerpt was originally published online on Aug. 12, 2015


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