It’s been estimated that the average North American spends eight hours a day seated. This is due to a combination of desk jobs, watching television, using computers and other stationary activities. While retired people aren’t chained to their desks, roughly 60 per cent of older adults are still considered to be “inactive,” meaning they get fewer than 30–60 minutes of moderate activity a day. Researchers and fitness experts have even coined the term “sitting disease” to describe the ill-health effects brought on by a sedentary lifestyle: High “bad” cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease are just a few.
While this might sound like a lot of bad news, the upside is that beating the sitting disease is just a matter of getting off your butt!
Here are some suggestions to increase your activity quotient. (If you have serious medical conditions or aren’t sure how to get started or what’s right for you, please speak to a physician.)
1. Take action…a little bit at a time
You’re probably thinking, “Can I find the time and what will I do?” The answer is to try things in small increments. Start slowly and gradually. Go on a brisk 10-minute walk around the neighbourhood. Pick up the pace or walk a little longer if it feels good. Every time you go out, add a few minutes. Your moderate physical activity doesn’t have to be done all at once: A short walk in the morning and another at lunch is just as good as one longer walk.
2. Count your steps
Get a simple pedometer (they can cost as little as $10) to figure out how many steps you take in an average day—the number may surprise you. A person is considered active if he or she takes at least 10,000 steps a day. But don’t try to double your steps immediately. Find simple ways to walk more, like getting off the bus or subway a stop earlier. Park at the far end of the grocery store’s parking lot or take the stairs instead of the elevator.
3. Throw your weights around
We tend to focus on cardiovascular exercise, but strength training is just as important. As we age we lose muscle mass, which can contribute to problems with balance and coordination. Weight training builds muscle and helps fight bone loss.
Choose a small weight you can lift 10–15 times in a row before you tire out. You shouldn’t feel pain when you lift, although you may be a bit sore at the start an exercise program. Talk to a doctor, fitness instructor or physiotherapist about developing an exercise plan you can do in about 20 minutes, two or three times a week. Developing your muscles will give you more endurance on your walks and help prevent falls.
4. Pick up some new habits
Do you get your newspaper delivered? Instead, head to the store. Get up and pace when you talk on the phone. Sit on the edge of your seat when you’re on the computer—this will engage your abdominal and back muscles more than slouching in a chair. Walk your neighbour’s dog!
5. Don’t let arthritis keep you down
People who have osteoarthritis sometimes avoid exercise because of pain and stiffness, but inactivity can actually make the symptoms worse. Exercise can strengthen supporting muscles and help maintain joint mobility. Aquafit classes have the benefit of toning muscles while increasing the range of motion of your joints, without putting pressure on them.
6. Take on active interests
Bridge clubs and craft groups are good for exercising the brain, but try to balance them with other activities that get your blood pumping. If there are sports such as bowling, curling or golfing that you enjoy and can do safely, make it a priority to participate in them regularly.
Consult your local health department, seniors’ centre, YMCA/YWCA and fitness clubs to see what they have to offer. The Heart and Stroke Foundation, Arthritis Society and Osteoporosis Canada often have great programs, resources and events to keep you active. Consider training for a fundraising walk—you’ll gain the physical benefits and be supporting a good cause.
7. Be flexible
As we grow older, the tissues around our joints thicken, reducing flexibility. Stretching helps fight the stiffness that sets in. A good time to stretch is after you’ve been on a walk or treadmill and your muscles are warmed up and your joints are limber.
Yoga classes are a great way to get into stretching with supervision. Some yoga studios have special classes for older adults. Once you learn how to do the moves, you can practise them at home as well.
8. Make visits active
When friends and family visit, we tend to spend a lot of time sitting at the table eating or on the sofa chatting. Why not plan visits around an activity, like a visit to a gallery or museum, an easy bike ride, trip to the park or outdoor picnic?
Play games with younger members of the family, especially the little ones who are easier to keep up with. Meet friends outside of the home and visit architectural attractions or go on scenic tours.
9. Start a walking group
Walking groups have so many benefits: they motivate us to get out more often, they provide us with new friendships and socialization and they make exercise fun. Choose a group that’s at your speed and go with friends who can keep up with you. Walks should be brisk and bring up your heart rate, not just leisurely strolls. Consider taking up mall-walking when the weather’s not great for outdoor activities.
10. Stand up for active living!
When you are seated, the muscles in your legs and lower body are relaxed, your circulation slows and you burn fewer calories. You burn twice as many calories standing as sitting, even if you’re not moving! Try to find ways to get up when you are reading or watching TV. Walk around for a few minutes and drink a glass of water to take a break from sitting. Try to avoid watching TV for more than two hours a day. If possible, put a treadmill in front of the TV and walk while you watch.
The National Institutes of Health reports that in one study, participants aged 80 years and older went from being dependant on a walker to walking with a cane in less than three months, just by doing simple muscle-toning exercises.
“Inactivity physiology” is a hot new area of research in medicine and fitness. New studies suggest that long periods of inactivity (such as sitting in front of the TV) are harmful to your health, regardless of whether you do moderate to vigorous exercise. So remember, the more you move, the better you’ll feel!
How many steps does it take?
- Less than 5,000/day = sedentary
- 5,000–7,499/day = low active
- 7,500–9,999/day = somewhat active
- 10,000/day = active
- More than 12,500/day = highly active
Source: Catrine Tudor-Locke, Arizona State University. Affiliate Scholar, Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute.
Tips for healthy stretching
- Warm up for 10–15 minutes before stretching.
- If a stretch begins to hurt, stop!
- Hold each stretch for 20 seconds.
- Don’t bounce during a stretch; stay relaxed.
- Breathe deeply.
Use common sense
- Don’t do vigorous activity outdoors when it’s hot or smoggy.
- Drink lots of water when you exercise.
- Stick to familiar areas when you go on your walks.
- Tell your doctor and family members that you are taking up new activities and exercises.
- Wear suitable clothing to protect you from the sun, wind and rain.