Exercise and physical activity are both important factors in maintaining health, independence, and quality of life as you age. Let’s explore what exactly that means for you on a day to day basis:
We all want to maintain the best quality of life we can as we grow older. Your physical abilities have a lot to do with this: the better you can move, the better your quality of life will remain. With respect to your physical abilities, your body is really great at adapting to whatever demands are made of them, regardless of age. This is good news, because it means that no matter when you start an exercise program or increase your physical activity, you will benefit from it. The bad news is that if you never start an exercise program, or if you allow yourself to become less physically active, your body will actually lose it’s ability to perform certain tasks involving strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance. The longer you remain inactive, the more loss occurs. So let’s put a stop to that right now, and explore what it really means to be physically active and exercise as an older adult.
First things first: what’s the difference between physical activity and exercise? Both are important factors in maintaining health and independence, but actually doing each is slightly different, both in intention and effort.
Physical activity is movement that occurs as part of your daily life, for which some muscular effort is required and energy is expended. Physical activity levels correspond with health benefits, to some degree – there is a maximum health benefit that can be achieved, because as your fitness increases, your body will be able to handle more exertion more easily. The walk that you were taking when you started will become much less physically stressful – good job! When increasing your physical activity, it’s important to take into account the level that you are normally doing. This can include things that might not immediately come to mind, like vacuuming or gardening, as well as taking a walk. Always make sure you are in a safe environment too. Be on the lookout for trip and fall hazards, and give yourself plenty of breaks as you increase your day to day activities to make sure you don’t overload your body.
Exercise is also movement, but the key different between exercise and physical activity is the intention of the movement. Exercise consists of planned and repeated movements, often of a higher intensity and also produced by muscular effort and energy expenditure. By intentionally producing movement and effort, you will improve and/or maintain physical fitness and health benefits to a greater degree than you can achieve via physical activity alone. As we age, it’s important to consider how quickly your body will recover from higher intensity efforts. Unfortunately, you just won’t bounce back the way you did when you were 20! To help this along, make sure you start slowly and easily, and give yourself plenty of time between workouts. A hot bath or shower, ice or heat packs, and extra sleep will help if you are feeling particularly sore or tired after a workout. Good nutrition and drinking plenty of water are also key, of course!
So, if exercise can result in greater health benefits than physical activity, should you just focus on breaking a sweat and not worry too much about movement during non-gym hours? Surprisingly, no! Though research shows that exercise programs can incur greater health benefits, high levels of physical activity in day to day life are still very important. And sometimes you can even kill two birds with one stone: Incorporating small bursts of exercise into your daily activities – like doing a few pushups on your kitchen counter a few times daily – will lead to a more active lifestyle without you even realizing it.
Bottom line: get moving! It doesn’t have to be a big workout to make a difference. To feel better and be more healthy, it just has to be more than you’re doing right now. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll cover different types of exercise and how each can benefit you.