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Diane Atwood tries out the foam roller at Back in Motion Physical Therapy. Courtesy photo

Don’t use your age as an excuse to do nothing

A little mishap occurred in Dr. Michael Duffy’s neighborhood recently. He had to tend to a boy who fell out of a tree. Minor bumps and bruises, but no broken bones, thank goodness. As medical director of Mercy Primary Care, he’s seen his fair share of bumps and bruises. And, he’d much rather see kids, including his own, playing outside, even climbing trees, than sitting inside playing computer games.

Dr. Michael Duffy

“You want your kids to be active,” he says. “As a physician, I encourage my patients and my own children to be physical. Climb trees, ride bikes. Is the risk of injury there? Sure, but with necessary precautions, it’s a reasonable one to take. I would prefer they were out there climbing a tree, even with the risk of falling, than to have them inside playing [on the computer.]”

Necessary precautions include wearing a seatbelt, wearing a helmet when you’re bicycling, knowing the rules of the water and wearing life preservers. These precautions apply to physically active adults as well. Now, as you age, you might find that you can’t do all the things you used to do or that your body isn’t as good at bouncing back. That shouldn’t stop you. You just need to be sensible and cautious.

Dr. Duffy (who’s in his late 40s) tries to be cautious when he’s out paddleboarding. He and his wife bought some boards this summer and he said they’re a lot of fun and they can give you quite a workout. “If you paddle around quite a bit, you’ll be sore in odd places the next day,” he says. “That’s because it’s a lot about core strength. Your core muscles are firing to maintain good balance. Every little muscle, your feet, your toes, are trying to keep you upright while you’re paddling in motion. It really is a full-body workout.”

What is the best kind of activity to be doing, say from 40 on?

Here are some suggestions:

How to be active in your 40s

Get out and jog or go for a walk.
Do some kayaking or go for a weekend hike.
Look for physical activities you can do with your family.
Don’t try to break your personal record on your 5K or 10K or go for a 50-mile bike ride on the weekend. If you do, you might be reeling in pain the next few days.
Continue to include a cardio workout and some weight training.

How to be active well past your 40s

Dr. Duffy said he sees more and more older people who are physically active and reaping the rewards. “These days, we’re seeing a healthy emphasis on physical activity and healthy lifestyles rather than reliance on medication, which is terrific,” he says. “As a physician, there’s nothing more rewarding to me than discontinuing a patient’s chronic medication because their lifestyle has improved.”

What if you’ve been sedentary for longer than you care to admit, but would like to do something, only you’re afraid you’ll hurt yourself? “Fear of injury can be a significant barrier to adopting a really healthy lifestyle,” he says. “I work with patients who have been sedentary for so long they just don’t trust that their bodies are going to be able to tolerate even basic physical activity. I recommend they start small. Start walking and then walk quickly, briskly. Follow up with some core strengthening physical activities.”

Start small and work toward activities you’d really like to be able to do. Ask yourself some questions, says Dr. Duffy. “What would you see yourself doing that you might feel is impractical right now? What would it take to get to that goal?  Maybe you’ve always wanted to go canoeing or bicycling. It’s feasible for you to get there no matter what your age or condition. Working with a trainer is a great way to gain confidence in your body’s capabilities and then start taking steps toward the activities that you would most like to do. Group activities can be really helpful, too.”

Before you begin any new physical activity, it’s always a good idea to check with your healthcare provider first, so you can assess any potential risks. But the bottom line is: Be active. Don’t use your age as an excuse to do nothing.

Weekend warriors

Some people are apt to go a bit overboard as they get older and try to pack it all in on the weekend. These so-called weekend warriors usually suffer the consequences, says Mike Moras. He’s a physical therapist at Back in Motion Physical Therapy, which has locations in Gorham, Portland and South Portland. “You’ve got folks like me, who work and have kids,” he says. “You can’t fit in exercise during the week, so you squeeze it in on Saturday and Sunday. You may also be starting to have some arthritic changes and can’t recover as quickly as you did in your 30s. That 5K you ran on Saturday is now taking more than 24 hours to recover from and you’re feeling it. Your legs are stiff and sore for a couple days.”

One more thing to remember

Good nutrition is also important, especially with age, says Dr. Duffy.” When we’re in our 20s, we can get away with eating most anything. Physical activity can burn off those bad calories. It becomes very unlikely through your 40s, 50s and beyond that you’re going to achieve the level of intensity needed to manage or lose weight. I encourage people, particularly the elderly, to focus hard on nutrition. What are you putting in your body? What are you eating and drinking throughout the day to make sure that you’re choosing good calories? That will then allow you to go there and achieve your physical goals?”

When I ask Dr. Duffy who he considers elderly, he was quick to say that the lines have blurred so much it’s become a vague category. “I have people who are so physically fit at 80 that they are far healthier and more able to endure the physical activities they’d like to do than some of my patients in their 40s, no question,” he says. “We see people living longer, healthier lives these days more than ever, and it all comes from making smart choices throughout their lives.”

Diane Atwood writes the blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood, which received a Gold Lamplighter Award from the New England Society for Healthcare Communications and a Golden Arrow Award from the Maine Public Relations Council. Find it at catchinghealth.com.

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