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.”