Staying fit comes naturally to small children. Every day is an adventure, running off to a favorite swing set, then skipping away to play with friends. As they grow bigger and stronger, they acquire finer skills and can channel their energy and interests into higher-level sports or activities they can pursue for the rest of their lives. At least that’s how things should go.
Life gets more complicated over the years with school, careers, family and all the other responsibilities that fill our schedules. The principles of fitness, however, don’t change: Move, play, and move some more. The key is adapting to each phase of life, keeping active and making time for fitness. That’s much easier if you’ve found something you really enjoy doing.
“The best exercise for you is the one you like enough to do,” says Michael Hewitt, Ph.D., Research Director for Exercise Science at Canyon Ranch. “That’s because it’s fun and you’ll keep on doing it.”
It helps to fall in love with swimming, tennis or soccer at an early age. Families that play sports, go hiking and enjoy other fun activities together strengthen their relationships and help everyone stay on a healthy path.
“I’m a big fan of play at every stage of life,” Michael says. “Adults don’t need it any less than kids. You might want to cut your workout short sometimes, but nobody wants to stop playing.”
Training for results
While play is wonderful, you may not have the time, interest or opportunity for it on a regular, frequent basis. The antidote to desk jobs, traffic jams and heavy schedules often lies in the gym. Michael recommends training that strategically builds cardio endurance, strength, flexibility, balance and agility to help you stay fit in a sedentary, grownup world. “Your exercise routine should change with time and with your body,” he points out. “When something becomes too easy, you need to increase the challenge. If it’s too stressful, it’s time to adapt.”
So, you could get a professional exercise prescription today, but you need to monitor it over the months and years. If you can now do 15 reps when you once managed only eight with the same weight, increase the challenge with more weight. If you easily walk three miles every morning, you’ll need to increase your pace or go the extra distance to raise your fitness level.
Avid golfers, tennis players and other focused athletes also benefit from strategic training. The right exercise plan can help balance muscle strength, build coordination and help sustain your skills and protect muscles and joints for a lifetime of play.
People are enjoying much greater longevity these days. Michael notes that medical advances and other factors have made it likely that you’ll live decades longer than previous generations.
“That’s great news,” Michael says, “but your joints may not last at full capacity that long without proper care. We need to plan for keeping them healthy and functioning all through life.”
Michael makes the analogy between cars and our bodies, using himself as an example. “I’m a 1956 model – not an antique, but a classic,” he says. “If you don’t change the oil in a new car for three years, it won’t make much difference. In a ‘classic,’ you will have destroyed its engine. A ‘classic’ needs more maintenance.”
He recommends cross-training. “Your joints will appreciate ten minutes on the elliptical, then ten on the treadmill, then ten on a bike more than thirty minutes on a single machine. That way you put less repetitive pressure on them in a single position.”
Many people switch sports to protect their joints, too. It has been said that today’s runners are tomorrow’s cyclists. There are other great activities that also take the weight off joints. Swimming or water exercise is unsurpassed as a full workout at very low joint risk.
Building lean body mass and sustaining bone strength is especially important as your body ages. “You need to compensate for the natural decline in muscle and bone density with age,” Michael says. “You build muscle and bone with strength training, and you can start at any age and see results. But don’t wait – start now! It’s much better if you start earlier in life and stay consistent so you don’t lose anything in the first place.”
No waiting necessary
Part of Michael’s philosophy is that “pre-hab is better than rehab.” He recommends staying ahead of the game so you can prevent getting injured and out of shape. “I saw this when I worked in a cardiac rehab center and realized that many of the problems could have been avoided. The pre-hab model is clearly more effective than waiting until something goes wrong.”
It’s a lot more fun, too. There are terrific “toys” that get you moving – bikes, skis, tennis racquets – but also virtual sports games. They help reinforce balance and agility, too, which we tend to lose with age.
Michael suggests tai chi as one of the safest and most effective ways to work on balance. This is particularly important to maintain mobility and prevent falls. He says, too, that the squats and leg lifts you do today will help you maintain activities for daily living – such as rising from a chair – that keep you independent and enjoying life.
“In addition to its cardio benefits, dance is another wonderful balance activity,” Michael says. “People love to dance at every age. It’s always fun moving and playing with music.”
Children who learn to dance get good exercise, build balance and confidence, and generally have a ball. Adults enjoy the same joyful spirit and get all the benefits.
“It’s wonderful for elderly people, too,” Michael says. “It’s something they can enjoy together, plus they literally support each other. It’s beautiful.”
The worst & the best advice
No matter your age or current fitness status, you can always improve. Being active will in itself make your life better – and being sedentary is among the worst things you can do.
“Think about that classic car,” Michael says. “There is nothing worse than disuse. It won’t get scratched, dented or experience wear, but it will rot from the inside. We’re not so different.”
Fitness is a gift you receive at birth. How will you nourish it throughout life?
Motivated to Move
Fitness requires a long-term commitment. Try some of Michael’s favorite strategies for staying on track over time:
The joy of toys
Find a playmate!
Keep an exercise log
Motivation can get you moving – and, once started, chances are you’ll keep right on going.