Exercise Can Cut All Sorts of Health Risks for Seniors. Here’s How to Get Going.

Imagine a medicine that reduced the death rate of breast cancer and risk of recurrent breast cancer by 50%, lowered the risks of colon cancer and type 2 diabetes by two-thirds, and those of heart disease, hypertension and Alzheimer’s disease by 40%. On top of that it can be as effective as antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy in countering depression.

That medicine exists, says Dr. Edward Laskowski of the Mayo Clinic: It’s called exercise.

“Movement is medicine,” says Dr. Laskowski, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation who says the health benefits he cites have been proven repeatedly by high-quality research.

You don’t need to run marathons to derive the benefits of exercise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults can get the benefits with at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week plus at least two sessions of weight training. 

You can meet the CDC guidelines by going to the gym twice a week and going on 30-minute walks on the other five days, says Mary Edwards, director of fitness at the Cooper Fitness Center in Dallas.

But any exercise is better than none. Research has shown that people can improve their health by doing as little as 10 minutes of exercise per week, Dr. Laskowski says. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

What type of exercise is best for you? While all exercise is good for your health, different forms help you in different ways. As you might guess, your cardiovascular system gets the biggest boost from aerobic exercise. 

Doctors used to recommend that you sustain a steady pace at something like cycling or walking or swimming for at least 20 minutes. That approach still works.

But in recent years, there has been a new emphasis on high-intensity training. Instead of doing something at the same pace the entire time, you do short bursts of exercise at maximum effort followed by periods of easy exercise or rest.

This gives you all the benefits of traditional aerobic exercise in less time and a few additional ones. For example, high-intensity exercise appears to be more efficient at reducing the bad type of cholesterol (LDL) and improving fasting glucose levels. 

High-intensity exercise is typically done at at 85% to 90% of your maximum effort. You don’t need heart-rate monitors or other fancy gear to find the right level. Research has found that perceived exertion is about as accurate. If you’re sprinting as fast as you can for 30 seconds, followed by a couple of minutes of walking, you’re doing high-intensity exercise.

“It’s just a matter of interspersing short periods of vigorous effort at high intensity, then allowing yourself to come back to the moderate pace,” says Edwards of Cooper Fitness.

As we get older, weightlifting becomes increasingly important for slowing muscle and bone density loss. The CDC recommends that you lift weights at least twice a week, working all the major muscle groups, including legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms.

“Everybody is going to lose bone and muscle as you get older,” says Dr. Jonathon Sullivan, co-author of a weightlifting book for people over 40, “The Barbell Prescription.” “It’s just a fact of life. But the ideal is to hang on to as much as is possible for you.”

Dr. Sullivan, who worked many years as an emergency room physician, says you shouldn’t exercise because you want to live longer. Instead, your goal should be to remain as healthy as possible during the years you have.

“What we’re trying to do is make the dying part of our lives shorter, and the living part of our lives longer,” he says. 

Twice a week, 73-year-old Carol Bateman of Kingwood, Texas, grabs a barbell weighing almost as much as she does and does squats or deadlifts. Bateman has been lifting for 14 years. “I knew I was getting older and I needed to do whatever I could do to stave off whatever nature would throw my way,” she says. 

Her coach, Andy Baker, who co-wrote “The Barbell Prescription,” emphasizes heavy lifts like squats and deadlifts that stress the muscles of the hips and back. “It reduces that trend of losing strength, losing muscle mass, losing bone density,” says Baker.  “And there’s a double benefit of improving balance.”

Ideally, you should combine weightlifting with aerobic exercise. If you are really time-pressed, you can accomplish this by adding a few minutes of high-intensity exercise after your gym workout. Baker sometimes has his clients push around a weighted sled.

Those with more time can do separate sessions of weight training, moderate exercise and high-intensity exercise in the same week.

Exercise doesn’t have to be done in the gym. Dr. Laskowski says he tries to keep moving all day, climbing up stairs and parking a little farther from his office at work.

For high-intensity work, Dr. Laskowski walks up and down a steep hill near his house.

“I accumulate 10,000 or 15,000 steps a day,” he says. “The more you can weave activity into your day, the better.”

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