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Springtime Fitness

By Eric Van De Graaff, MD March 19, 2012 Posted in: Heart Health

Who doesn't love springtime?  What a great way to end the cold, gray days of winter!  As you can probably tell from my previous writing, I'm not a big fan of winter—especially in Nebraska, a state climate scientists visit to observe the effects of the ice age in action.  But now that spring is here all is well again in the world.

There's no better time than the present to get your body back into shape for bikini season.  For those of you who actually contemplate donning a skimpy bathing suit this summer there are plenty of body sculpting resources in the magazines that decorate the grocery store check-out line (along with numerous examples of airbrushing and Photoshop handicrafts).

But this blog is not meant for the thirty-year-old athlete or the svelte swimsuit model.  No, today I'm addressing a demographic that has hung up the Speedo for good: the over-65 crowd.  (That's not to say that you can't wear skimpy swimwear if you're an octagenerian with a paunch.  Years ago, when I lived in Europe, I'd routinely see leathery old men trotting around their yards clad in nothing but a couple square inches of Lycra.  Of course, with years of PTSD counseling, I've almost rinsed those memories from my psyche.)

Sweating away in the gym is fine, but I believe there are certain intangible benefits to exercising outside.  Call me a new-age nut, but I'm of the opinion that the combination of fresh air, sunshine, and the marvels of nature stimulate parts of the brain that remain dormant when you're on an elliptical staring at CNN.  So, for those of you who are a little older, a little slower, and a little less likely to hit the gym over the winter, here's my advice for getting out and enjoying some daily exercise in the beautiful weather to come.

  1. Start slowly.  It's not just your heart and lungs that are over the hill—your joints probably passed their prime years ago.  Your brain may still think you're 22 but your hips are firmly in the AARP territory.  Whatever you think you're capable of doing, cut your plans in half and start there.  Your knees will thank you.
  2. Set modest goals.  Start by walking to the mailbox and back every day.  The next week do it twice a day.  In a month, tackle the whole block.  You get the picture.  For many older people, a trip to the end of the road and back is as arduous as a 5K race and is plenty of activity to keep the heart healthy.
  3. Try run-walking.  This is for those of you who used to be runners and want to jump right back into jogging.  Running, even slowly, is a relatively big step up from walking in terms of aerobic intensity and joint stress.  Start by incorporating short segments of slow jogging into your walks and increase the frequency as the months go by.  Before you know it you'll be signing up for races, consuming energy bars, and discussing the merits of Asics versus New Balance.
  4. Avoid headphones.  It seems no one can exercise anymore without being in constant touch with Adele or Lady Gaga.  If your outdoor walk takes you out on the road or on a path frequented by cyclists you should leave the iPod home and spend your time listening to the birds.  Paying attention to your surroundings will keep you from stepping in front of a car or getting run over by a cyclist frantically yelling to warn you of his presence.
  5. Get a medical bracelet.  The last thing you want is to collapse while you're out for your daily constitutional.  But if that happens you'll want to have identification on you as well as some sort of way to communicate your chronic medical condition to EMS personnel.  And, as your mother always told you, be sure to wear clean underwear.
  6. Carry a phone.  This one's pretty obvious—you need a smartphone so you can peruse my vast library of cardiology blogs while you walk.  Scratch that.  What I meant is that you need your phone so you can call for help if you don't feel right.
  7. Push yourself a little.  If your health is relatively good I encourage you to challenge your body every now and again.  Walk a little faster up that next hill to try to improve your anaerobic capacity (see recent blog on this topic).
  8. Exercise with a friend.  It makes exercise more interesting and your friend's influence will help drag you out of bed on days you don't feel up to walking.
  9. Try biking.  Riding a bicycle is great exercise that doesn't tax the knees as much as ambulation.  The problem with biking is the whole "falling over" thing.  Even with a helmet an 80-year-old that drops off his Schwinn Varsity runs a good risk of a hip fracture, or at least some chuckles from the annoying neighbors.  But don't give up hope!  A few of my patients have had good success with 3-wheeled bikes and I have yet to hear of anyone tipping over.
  10. Ignore the weather.  Lance Armstrong famously trained every single day with the perseverance of a postal carrier.  He'd be out on the road despite wind, rain, snow, sleet and biblical plagues.  While I'm not suggesting you ignore common sense and exercise during a meteor shower or flaming hail, don't shy away from the cold or rain—just bundle up.  It's too easy to get into the habit of saying "it's too hot" or "it might rain," until you reach the point that you don't venture outside unless the weather is picture perfect.
  11. Smell the roses.  Don't forget to enjoy the beautiful surroundings as you're out wandering your neighborhood.  I have a patient who brings a digital camera with her on her daily walk in case she sees a particularly interesting flower in blossom or budding tree.  Sure, your block may not be the stuff of the National Geographic, but the more you pay attention the more interesting it gets.
  12. Check with your doctor.  Here's where I pander for new business.  I'm just kidding, of course, but it's always wise to make sure you're healthy enough to launch into an exercise program if you've been previously sedentary.  If there is a doubt about your exertional capacity we can always give you a trial run (so to speak) on one of our treadmills.

So get out there and enjoy the sunshine of another beautiful springtime.  Say a quiet prayer of gratitude for the chirping birds, the blossoming flowers, the greening trees, and the fact that you don't live next door to an overweight European in a Speedo.

Eric Van De Graaff, MD
Eric Van De Graaff, MD

Eric Van De Graaff, MD is a Heart & Vascular Specialist at CHI Health Clinic.

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