Next Avenue's Top 10 Fitness Tips of 2012
Creative suggestions for getting in shape and extending your life
Gary Drevitch was senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health & Well-Being channels.
1. Run with the crowd. According to the National Institute on Aging, running not only delays the onset of age-related muscular atrophy, it also strengthens brain cells. And a recent University of Pittsburgh study found that aerobic exercise of any kind actually increased the size of the hippocampus in middle-aged participants, effectively reversing age-related loss in the brain’s seat of learning and memory by one to two years.
If you're eager to jog but dread the loneliness of even the short-distance runner, consider joining a running club. You'll get instant access to advice, support and training, and the social element can help keep you motivated. The Road Runners Club of America can help you locate groups in your area that welcome beginner, veteran and senior runners. Learn more about why it's never too late to start running.
2. Swim for your life. Swimming is the only aerobic exercise that works every major muscle group while keeping ankles, knees and elbows free from impact, making it an outstanding fitness regimen for those in middle age and beyond. A long-term Indiana University study of U.S. Masters Swimmers has found that swimmers have the muscle mass of adults 15 years younger and that their arteries are more elastic than those of younger landlubbers.
The study also found that older swimmers have greater cell density and stronger "connectedness" between neurons in the cerebellum, which could mean protection from age-related complications in gait and balance that can lead to falls. Learn more about why you should swim into your next decade and beyond.
3. Grow a healthier you in the garden. The best way to get fit and stay fit is not necessarily to overthrow your routine and become a gym rat, but to get a better workout doing the things you already love. For example, studies have found that 45 minutes of gardening burns as many calories as 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. If you can work in your garden that long at least three times a week, you've got yourself an outstanding exercise routine. Even better, research shows that gardeners sleep better, have an increased zest for life, a lowered risk of osteoporosis and diabetes and better sex lives. Learn more about the surprising health benefits of gardening.
4. Turn your walk into a workout. We all walk. But few of us walk enough. Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop recommends that everyone take 10,000 steps a day — about five miles — to maintain good fitness, but the average American takes only about half that many.
Walking helps lower "bad" (LDL) cholesterol, reduces your blood pressure and risk of arthritis, strengthens your immune system, helps you sleep better and eases stress.
Unfortunately, walking several miles a day can also be boring. So mix it up with an alternative approach, like chi walking, which emphasizes balance, alignment and posture. To begin, think of your body as a column. As you walk, move with your core abdominal muscles, relax your arms and legs and keep your leading leg bent at the knee so you land on midfoot, just ahead of the heel. Don’t push so hard from your toes as you walk forward, and keep your upper body over your hips to encourage propulsion from your core rather than your foot muscles. Learn more about turning your walk into a workout.
5. Exercise with man's best workout partner. It's always more fun if you're not alone — and there's no more eager buddy than your dog. Even better, a pooch is unlikely to complain about the weather or time of day, or to disparage your lack of trendy fitness gear.
To get a more robust, engaging workout than your morning or evening walk, consider a sport you two can share, like frisbee or agility obstacle course competitions, in which your pet jumps through tires, weaves around poles, darts inside tunnels and navigates see-saws. As your champ's handler, you'll run the course as well and since team speed is a key to victory, aerobic training will boost your mettle.
Border collies are natural agility competitors, but all breeds and sizes can play. Starter course sets are available at many pet shops and your local kennel club should have information on agility clubs in your area. Discover 7 more ways to exercise with your pet.
6. Got stairs? Then you've got a home gym. Before you spend another dollar on an infomercial gadget or an expensive monthly membership at the local fitness club, look around your home. If it has a stairway, you already have all the equipment you need to get in shape.
Climbing stairs burns calories more efficiently than nearly any other form of cardiovascular exercise. A 140-pound person walking up and down steps can burn 500 to 600 calories in an hour, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. That beats tennis, stationary cycling and brisk walking, and is equivalent to an hour of running at a 10-minute-mile pace. You can also use the stairs to perform push-ups, "step-ups," squats, hamstring stretches, calf raises and more. Learn more about getting a complete, stair-based workout.
7. Give your house a power cleaning. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises all adults to get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week. But who has the time?
As it happens, all of us, if we think creatively. For example, if you're going to clean your house anyway, why not make it worth the trouble by turning it into an aerobic workout? While vacuuming or dusting, work more quickly and add walking lunges while you move about your home. When washing dishes, practice "single balance" (standing on one leg). And on your way up or down the stairs, do a few extra flights of climbing to add a cardiovascular element. Learn more about creative ways to sneak exercise into your daily routine.
8. Do supersets to get a superior workout. If you've got a gym workout you're comfortable with, that's probably a sign that you need to up the intensity. Today, many personal trainers push "supersets," in which you immediately follow sets (8 to 12 repetitions) of upper-body exercises with sets of lunges or abdominal exercises, then alternate lower-body sets with push-ups or more ab work, with only brief rest stops.
The idea is to keep the heart rate elevated throughout the session to maximize efficiency and deliver a full-body workout. Science supports the higher-intensity approach: For a study presented at a recent American College of Sports Medicine conference, researchers assigned 70 adults age 60 to 75 one of three supervised 30-week workout regimens. Those who were assigned the most intense regimen — twice-weekly, 45-minute workouts built around supersets, with one additional, less intense workout mixed in — got the greatest benefit, gaining four-and-a-half pounds of muscle mass on average, with no injuries. Not only could they handle the amped-up workout, they thrived. So should you. Learn more about boosting the intensity of your workouts.
9. Snap out of your routine. Doing the same thing every time you exercise can get old. It's also not good for you, according to the theory known as "muscle confusion," which suggests that your muscles get used to, or "accommodate" exercises that apply the same stress in the same way every time you work out, making your efforts less effective. Better instead to mix things up and "shock" muscles into responding to your workouts.
The concept applies to your mix of aerobic exercise and weight or resistance training as well — doing one, even with great intensity, to the exclusion of the other limits your total fitness. Along with cardio exercise, an average adult's workout should include, among other things, squats or lunges to work the leg muscles; bench presses or push-ups to work the chest, triceps and shoulders; and an exercise with a rowing movement to work the back muscles and biceps. Learn more about establishing a varied exercise regimen.
10. Whatever you do, do something — today. In the end, it doesn't matter how you get fit, just that you do it, now, to improve your health. In a major study released this year, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center analyzed the Medicare claims of more than 18,000 men and women who, around age 50, had taken a treadmill test to measure their cardiovascular fitness. They discovered that midlife fitness was a strong predictor of avoiding eight major chronic conditions after 65, including heart and kidney disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and colon and lung cancer.
The finding supports the theory of "compression of morbidity," which suggests that when we can postpone the onset of chronic illness — and getting fit is a prime way to do it — we compress our life's total "illness burden." By getting and staying fit throughout middle age, we can shrink the amount of time we'll ever have to spend living with chronic illness. Learn more about the value of getting fit in middle age.