Health

Published: Thursday May 15, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday May 15, 2014 MYT 11:52:08 AM

Want to age gracefully? Start while you're still young

Personal trainer Rickie Ali works with Jenny Rodriguez at the gym. Building cardiovascular health as well as muscle mass and bone density can make it easier as one ages. – MCT

Personal trainer Rickie Ali works with Jenny Rodriguez at the gym. Building cardiovascular health as well as muscle mass and bone density can make it easier as one ages. – MCT

We can age more successfully if we develop a healthy lifestyle when we’re young – one that includes exercise, a healthy diet, sufficient sleep and watching our weight.

Astrid Flaherty nimbly hops off a low platform, then swoops from side to side touching orange plastic cones. Though she's 70 and a breast cancer survivor, she seems barely winded. Her secret: lifelong exercise and healthy eating. “Exercise is the best anti-ageing pill you can take,” says Dawn Davis, a fitness instructor at Shula’s Athletic Club in Miami Lakes, Florida.

Flaherty has discovered on her own what doctors and fitness experts are saying: People can age more successfully if they develop a healthy lifestyle when they’re young, one that includes exercise, a healthy diet, sufficient sleep and watching their weight.

Flaherty still hits the gym three times a week, plays tennis on Saturdays, and her diet emphasises fresh, natural foods. Being in good shape also helped when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. “My doctors were amazed that I was able to come back from my chemo sessions so quickly,” she says.

“People need to think about the ageing process throughout their lives. I know it’s hard when you’re 20 years old,” says Dr Sara Czaja, professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences and the scientific director of the Centre on Ageing at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. “It’s really important to take advantage of what we know, and we do know a lot about how to age healthily.”

That includes staying socially engaged throughout life and being mindful at a young age of the dangers of smoking, the links between skin cancer and overexposure to the sun, and having recommended preventive screenings, Czaja says.

“A lot of chronic disease – diabetes, high-blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity – may be prevented by maintaining a healthy lifestyle throughout life too,” she says. “What we’re also learning more and more is the importance of engaging in physical exercise. That leads to not only better cardiovascular health but also better cognitive health. There is suggested evidence that being obese can cause cognitive problems.”

But the reality is what initially motivates many people to exercise is concern about their appearance – not their health, says Rickie Ali, a fitness/wellness specialist and personal trainer at Shula’s Athletic Club.

“The fitness business knows this – with the ads about six-pack abs and all that,” he says. You can get lean following some of the programmes now in vogue, he adds, but they're not complete and some also put people at risk of injury by trying to do too much too fast.

“My main goal for people is for them to have the fitness they need to get through their everyday activities,” Ali says. “By default, the body gets leaner. But that is not my motivation.” Anyone who wants health for life needs to address lifestyle habits, nutrition, wellness and fitness at every phase of their lives, Ali adds.

A basic mantra for anyone who wants to age well is move, move, move. In the 20s and early 30s, that means building strong muscles, bone density and as healthy a cardiovascular system as possible, Ali says. “It’s like when you build a house. You need to build a solid foundation.”

And anyone who embarks on a fitness programme needs to improve their nutrition as well. “Think of food as a fuel like gas for a car,” says Ali. “You might want to drive that car five days a week, but if the gas isn’t there, you can’t do it.”

Personal trainer Rickie Ali works with Laura Fuentes at a gym in Miami Lakes, Fla., on April 17, 2014. Building cardio-vascular health as well as muscle mass and bone density can make it easier as one ages. (CW Griffin/Miami Herald/MCT)
Exercise movements for those at mid-life are basically the same as for a younger person, but the number of repetitions and intensity may vary. – MCT

“If you have strong muscles and core, it’s easier to stop yourself from falling and risking injury,” says Davis. Charles Eaves, 75, a retired salesman who trains with Davis, was an almost everyday runner before a recurrent foot injury sidetracked him.

After he stopped running, “my resilience just wasn’t there. I felt like if I fell, I would just lie there like a limp rag and wouldn’t be able to get up,” Eaves says. Now after a year of thrice weekly training sessions with Davis, he says the strength and flexibility he had as a runner have come back.

As people age they need to adapt to changing realities, Czaja says. “Your life may be different, but that doesn’t mean you’re not ageing successfully.” The good news is that even if you’ve never exercised or haven’t worked out regularly, it’s still possible to ease back into a fitness routine and find success at any age.

But it’s important before beginning an exercise regime, says Ali, to get medical clearance from a doctor and let your trainer know if there are any limitations. He also recommends a physical and lifestyle assessment to establish a baseline for building a fitness programme.

Dr Anaisys Ballesteros, a family practice physician with Baptist Health Medical Group, says her key advice to younger patients is: Don’t forget your annual preventive physical.

Younger people don’t tend to come in until they’re sick, she says. But regular preventive screenings can show them whether they're at risk for diabetes or high blood pressure when they're still young enough to modify diet, lifestyle – including controlling stress, fitness and weight, says Ballesteros.

Even though she’s only 27, Stephanie Martinez says she realised a few years ago it was time to make some changes herself. When she was younger, she thought nothing of eating a whole pizza or a big plate of food. “I’m Hispanic, so a big plate of food is a big plate – rice, beans, protein, plantains, avocado, tomatoes, and then I would always have dessert, a very sweet dessert like mango marmalade with cream cheese.”

Even though she was active, her weight began to creep up – first 9kg, then 14kg – and she tired more easily. That’s when she began to exercise, made healthy changes in her kitchen and got creative with recipes.

Although Martinez is busy with graduate school and her job as a speech therapist assistant, she says now she’s committed to making wellness a priority. “Now I wish that when I was younger, my family would have gone bike-riding instead of to the mall,” she says. “Parents need to give their children healthy options.” – The Miami Herald/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Tags / Keywords: Health, ageing, fitness

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