Take charge of the rest of your life with moderate exercise, a proper diet and a healthy social life
By Wendy Roberts
Retirement is a chance to do all the things you've neglected along the way—travel to Europe, learn how to golf—or finally get to that elusive household task, retiling the bathroom floor. But if your health is one of the things you've been neglecting all these years, you may have a hard time keeping up with your agenda.
Common health problems for those 60 and older include bone density loss, development of arthritis and cardiovascular diseases, depression, weight gain, memory loss and decreased energy and stamina. Once these age-related health problems develop, they usually worsen—if you let them.
Ed and Stella Anacker of Bozeman, Montana, are an active couple, both in their 80s, who've taken charge of their health and successfully accomplished their goals because of it. The Anackers have been married for 57 years and during that time have developed healthy routines. They walk from two to seven miles every day. They hike and have helped with the Wind Drinkers Running Club's weekly fun run since 1975. Ed instigated the annual Bridger Ridge Run, a grueling 20-mile scramble along the crest of the Bridger Range, just outside Bozeman. He hasn't run the course for the past four years, partly because of sore knees, but still carries water to the aid station near the 8,914-foot summit of Mount Baldy, a feat some people would find difficult to do in their 20s.
Stella doesn't experience joint pain, but ulcers from varicose veins in her legs limit how much she can run and bike. Once winter hits, Ed takes to the ski slopes, and Stella stays at home to shovel snow, her current favorite winter sport.
Stella has been a self-proclaimed "nutrition nut" ever since she enrolled in a home economics class in high school. Now she's the driving force maintaining the couple's healthy diet. She makes certain she and her family drink lots of water and eat low-fat foods. They cook plenty of salmon and chicken, but only small amounts of beef, and they eat lots of greens, especially broccoli and romaine lettuce. Both Ed and Stella supplement their diets with vitamin E.
The Anackers also take care to maintain their network of social support. They've always been socially active, both with friends they've met through Montana State University (where Ed taught until he retired at age 74) and with their neighbors and fellow church members. Spending time with their children and grandchildren keeps them energized, too. The formula has worked for them: moderate exercise, a proper diet, a healthy social life, and gracefully letting go of what's no longer possible.
Before starting a fitness program, changing your diet, or committing to a rigorous social schedule, it's always a good idea to consult with your health care practitioner. If you stick to the following guidelines, your senior years can be rewarding.
Exercise is the key to feeling good during every stage of life, and you're never too old to get started, says Sandy Knapp, a personal fitness trainer and yoga instructor at the Ridge Athletic Club in Bozeman. Knapp has many clients between the ages of 60 and 80. She suggests finding something you really love to do, such as dance, tai chi, water aerobics or stationary biking—all excellent activities for those 60 and older.
Exercising daily will increase flexibility, stamina, and strength, and enable you to perform the everyday activities necessary to live independently. Exercise also helps maintain mental function and staves off the depression that is common in the elderly.
Kathryn Borgenicht, MD, a geriatrician in Bozeman, seconds the need for cardiovascular exercise several times a week. She strongly recommends walking: Start slowly and walk a short distance, gradually adding ten minutes each day. Borgenicht also suggests supplementing walking with resistance training to deter bone loss. Postmenopausal women without estrogen replacement typically experience the greatest bone density loss, but men also start losing bone density in their 70s, so by age 80, it becomes an issue for both sexes.
Yoga is also an excellent addition to any routine, especially after age 60, since it helps lubricate the joints, which prevents arthritis, and it enhances blood flow to your brain. Gentle variations of poses should emphasize weight-bearing and balancing techniques. Many poses can be completed next to a wall or a chair, so you needn't worry too much about falling. If you're just getting started, find an instructor who has experience with older students and knows how to make your yoga practice safe and effective.
The Anackers' jump start on nutrition proved an intelligent choice. Aging affects many organs, and eating well may help prevent a range of health problems.
The pancreas is one organ affected by age. As you grow older, the pancreas produces less insulin. So even without obesity, you may develop diabetes. To help prevent this, limit refined sugar and flour intake, especially if you're genetically susceptible to the disease.
To assist in preventing osteoporosis, says Susan Ashford, a dietitian at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital, supplement your diet with calcium and vitamin D in addition to exercising regularly.
Greta Montagne, AHG, a clinical herbalist in Portland, Oregon, and member of the American Herbalists Guild, says it's important to lubricate the skin. Montagne says that according to Ayurvedic principles, elder years are a time when the skin dries out. She recommends herbs such as dandelion to juice up your system. Ginger, elderberry, and nettle should be added to meals or steeped in hot water to make teas—pleasant alternatives to taking bulky pills.
Contact with other people, especially friends and family, is another important health tool as you grow older. "Pick a fun social activity, even if it's as simple as chair exercises offered in senior homes, and go for it," says Knapp.
A proven contributor to a long, happy life, social activity also helps prevent the onset of depression, which is common for this age group, says Borgenicht. Keeping mentally active may provide protection against developing dementia. Volunteer at your local schools or with community organizations. It's never too late to get involved and make friends.
Wendy Roberts has a PhD in ecology from the University of California at Berkeley. She and her husband enjoy teaching their two young children the value of exercise.