How to Boost Brain and Body Function as You Age
Asbury Methodist Village resident Ron Stevenson (pictured above with his wife Pam) celebrates his milestone birthdays by hiking up Virginia’s Old Rag Mountain. The nine-mile, round-trip trek marked birthdays 50, 60 and 70. And in 2020, when COVID restrictions made it impossible to mark his 80th birthday in the same way, he didn’t relent, he rescheduled.
Ron, now 81, fresh off completing his Old Rag Mountain climb, offered up some advice about how to maintain a fitness routine as you age. “To get fit and stay fit, you have to start moving and never stop,” he says. “I doubt if I can manage the climb when I turn 90, but that goal will keep me exercising for the next nine years. Of course, if I make it to the top when I turn 90, I will have to stay fit to try when I turn 100.”
Even if you’re not a mountain climber there are simple steps you can take to incorporate exercise into your life. Take short walk and try to increase your distance each week. Don’t take the parking spot closest to the entrance. Ron is a big fan of group exercise classes and recommends you try a range of them to see what works best for you. Some classes are more strenuous than others. And some are even done while you’re sitting in a chair.
As for motivation, Ron says to first put your ego on the shelf, so you’re not embarrassed if your fitness level doesn’t match that of others in the class. You’ll improve with practice and remember that “if you don’t get up and move, the less you can move.”
To begin a fitness program, Ron suggests that you first get evaluated by a trainer who will design an exercise program that works for you.
“I thought I was in pretty good shape when I moved here, but I’m stronger physically, socially and mentally because of our move to Asbury,” says Ron. “I have always been disciplined about cardiovascular exercise — running, walking, skiing, skating, etc. — but until we moved to Asbury, I did nothing to maintain my strength, flexibility and balance abilities.”
Ron does a three-part mix of fitness that includes the following:
- Cardiovascular: walking, swimming, biking, etc.
- Strength: light weights and weight machines in the fitness center
- Flexibility and balance: yoga classes 2-3 times per week
Inspired? Here are few tips from Ron to help get you on the road to a more active and fit lifestyle.
Mix it up with a menu of different routines. Walk, swim, lift light weights, take a variety of fitness classes. “I am easily bored so I like to have a variety of exercise options. Also, at age 81, I don’t recover as quickly as I once did so I rarely do the same strenuous exercise two days in a row.”
Don’t be afraid of failing or looking foolish. “I consistently fail and look foolish,” jokes Ron. Group exercise provides great motivation and social interaction. Who cares if you can’t quite keep up with that Zumba choreography? Ron recently competed with a friend in the Pickleball competition for the Maryland Senior Olympics and ended up placing third out of six teams. They went on to compete in the loser category and lost again. “It was a fun day and we learned how to lose graciously,” says Ron.
Pivot when necessary
When you stop improving in one sport, try something new. When Ron’s wife Pam had foot problems from running, the couple switched to inline speed skating. “No more foot problems,” says Ron. The couple stopped cross-country skiing a decade ago but have started again. “We certainly don’t ski up the mountain as quickly as we did and we’re on the hunt for some flat trails, but we’re doing it.”
Engage your brain
You can’t beat the mental high the comes with a good workout. And there’s plenty of science to explain why. Being active improves mental, emotional, psychological, and social well-being. “The mental health benefits are very, very powerful,” says Ron. “Exercise relieves stress and reduces anxiety. It’s a powerful antidote to aging.”
The physical benefits of exercise are well known. It reduces the odds of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. And there’s increasing evidence that exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills. Studies suggest that regular physical activity can reduce your risk of cognitive decline, including dementia.
“I have always exercised because it makes me think better,” says Ron. “When my heart and lungs are pumping clean blood to my brain, it works better.”
Another critical part of healthy aging is socialization, particularly for seniors. Feeling a sense of belonging, acceptance, and connection to people other than family is critical to good health. Without it, people become susceptible to loneliness, depression, anxiety, compromised immune systems and declining cognitive function.
Think of socialization as a whole-body exercise for the mind. It’s not just about doing one thing, it’s about doing many things in many ways – recalling memories, having conversations, meeting someone who shares the same interest, listening and thinking about responses, and reading reactions and recognizing emotions. Joining in a group event, even if it is online, or conversing one-on-one gets a lot of gears moving in the brain, with positive effects on your overall wellness.