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Fit And Fifty

Starting around age 50, women face a whole new range of health issues, including menopause. The aging process speeds up around age 50, especially since women’s bodies are producing less estrogen. Some people believe that exercise can’t help you once you reach a certain age, but that’s not true. A consistent walking program can help menopausal women in many ways, according to Alice Lesch Kelly, a writer for Walking magazine. Here are a few:

  • A loss of heart-protecting estrogen causes cardiovascular risk to rise, but walking – which raises HDL (good cholesterol) and lowers LDL (bad cholesterol) as well as blood pressure – offsets some of that risk.
  • The beta-endorphins that our brain releases during exercise can lessen mood swings.
  • Loss of estrogen can bring on insomnia, but exercise can improve both quality and quantity of sleep.

Menopausal women are also at risk for osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. About 20 million Americans suffer from osteoarthritis, a painful disease that causes joint cartilage to degenerate. It mainly affects the hands, feet, knees and hips. A 1997 study funded by the National Institute on Aging found that people with moderately severe osteoarthritis of the knee who exercise in moderation have less pain than those who lead sedentary lifestyles.

About 28 million Americans (80% of them women) have osteoporosis, a loss of bone that can lead to fractures. Estrogen (the glue that keeps calcium and other minerals in the bones) protects our bones before menopause, but after menopause those minerals leak out, leaving bones brittle and porous. According to Dr. Warren A. Katz, chief of rheumatology at the University of Pennsylvania Health System Presbyterian Medicine Center, brisk walking is an ideal exercise. It can be done anywhere, requires no special equipment (except for a good pair of walking shoes), and carries minimal risk of injury. If walking is too difficult or painful, workouts on a stationary exercise cycle are a good alternative. The full benefits come from a regular schedule – at least 15 to 20 minutes of walking or cycling three to four days per week. If you haven’t been active for years, start at whatever level is comfortable for you. Five-minute walks are fine at first, but try to increase the length by one minute every other time you exercise, until you reach the optimal level.

Lifting weights or using strength-training machines every three days also strengthen bone. Strength-training is a slow process, so start at a low level and build up gradually over several months. As muscles strengthen, gradually add more weight. It is important to follow a program designed by your doctor or physical therapist. If you join a fitness facility, be sure you ask a certified trainer to show you proper techniques and form. Stiffness the morning after exercise is normal, but if you’re in pain, your joints are swollen, or you’re limping, stop the program until you are recovered, and cut your weights and repetitions by 25-50%. If bone, joint or muscle pain is severe, call your doctor.

Some benefits of muscular strength and endurance are not only being able to lift objects, but your own body weight as well. With lower body training, you will have improved ability to rise from chairs and the bed; be able to walk without a cane or less reliance on a cane; have increased ability to perform daily tasks; have improved walking speed, and better posture. Also, improved leg strength is an important part of maintaining balance and preventing falls. Balance is found to decrease with age and is one of the reasons elderly people have so many falls. Exercise and activity have been found to improve balance.

You can’t stop menopause, but you can lessen the risks that come with it by staying active.

Exercise will improve the quality of your life, as well as lengthen it.

Toil And Travel

During the past three weeks, I had the opportunity to travel to both England and Canada. (I live in the U.S. – the state of Illinois.) The trip to England was by air, of course, and the trip to Canada was a 10-hour drive each way! By the end of the three-week course, I was exhausted. I’m just now getting back to my normal routine, and I learned a lot about staying healthy and fit while traveling from personal experience. Now that I’m home, I’ve been reading and researching travel and fitness tips. I found you don’t have to arrive at your destination dehydrated, disoriented and too tired to enjoy yourself. There are creative ways to exercise, even while on the road (or on the plane!). Says Rebecca Johnson, co-author of Travel Fitness, “Travelers can easily incorporate their regular fitness programs or begin a new program when away from home. There are creative ways to be healthy and fit while on the road, with the added benefits of reduced stress and increased productivity.”

First of all, if you are traveling by plane, the following items would be helpful for your well-being and comfort:

  • Lumbar roll for your back (my lower back ached a lot during flight – I wish I had known this tip before I went!)
  • Eye shades
  • Ear plugs
  • Eye drops, lip balm & moisturizer (cabin air is very drying)
  • Large water bottle (very important to stay hydrated in flight, which means you need more than the standard 64 oz. of water per day. Add an extra 6-8 oz. of water for every hour you’re in the air. Limit your consumption of coffee and alcohol.)
  • Nutritious snacks, such as raisins and/or soda crackers
  • Order a special meal–low-salt, diabetic, vegetarian or kosher. It’ll be more nutritious than regular airline fare.

While you’re on the plane, get up every hour and walk the length of the plane to keep your blood circulating and decrease the pressure on your back. If walking around isn’t possible (flight attendants serving others, for example), at least go to the back of the plane, stand for awhile, and do simple stretching exercises.

When you arrive at your destination, get outside and take a walk, especially if it’s still daylight. Not only will the walk improve your mood, energy level and circulation, but you’ll recover from jet lag more quickly as well.

If you’re lucky, your hotel will have a pool and/or fitness room. Take advantage of both! Be sure to pack a bathing suit, walking/running shoes, and exercise clothes. Get up ½ hour early and take a swim or walk on the treadmill. If you have your evening free, you can do your workout and then treat yourself to the whirlpool or sauna.

When I was in England, I stayed with friends, not at a hotel. However, I quickly learned that the Britons rely on their feet a lot more than their cars! We only took the car when we absolutely had to. We walked so much during the week I was there, I lost three pounds! My one friend runs or bikes to and from work every day, even in the rain–five miles each way. The family swims together (at an indoor pool) once a week; sometimes bikes to church; and the children are in a running club. Errands are done on foot–they use a metal pull-cart to carry their wares home. It was a rare sight to see an overweight Brit. I think Americans could learn a lot from them in this regard!

Unfortunately, my trip to Canada didn’t go as well as my trip to England. It was an emergency road trip (two days after I arrived home from England!) due to a death in the family. By the time we drove 10 hours and arrived at our hotel in the evening, I was crabby and tired and didn’t feel like taking a walk. Now that I look back on it, I should’ve dragged myself outside anyway–it would’ve made me feel better afterwards.

According to Rebecca Johnson and Bill Tulin (the other author of Travel Fitness), to preserve your hard-earned fitness level, exercise at least every third day while on the road. Perform at least a third of your aerobic routine at your typical level of intensity and complete your strength-training program at least once a week, using the same amount of resistance.

Keeping at least part of your routine intact will keep your energy level up.

Time To Get Going

Last year, I wrote a similar article entitled, Time for Fitness.” I thought this topic was worth repeating, as time (lack of, that is) seems to be the number one excuse of why women don’t exercise.

Experts say the number one reason for midlife weight gain is reduced physical exercise. According to C. Wayne Callaway, M.D., associate clinical professor of medicine at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., “When we get less exercise, we start shedding muscle and adding fat.” It takes fewer calories to maintain fat than muscle, so metabolism starts to slow down.

Hormones also play a role. Estrogen levels start to drop a year or two before menopause, which pushes our bodies to store fat. If you’re thinking you’re “doomed” come middle age, take heart. It doesn’t take an hour at the gym everyday or going on a too-strict diet to keep in shape. If you think of exercise as something you are doing for yourself, you’re off to a good start.

To stick to an exercise regime (and it doesn’t need to be grueling!), make it part of your everyday routine – just like taking a shower every morning. Take a look at your calendar to see what’s taking up a lot of your time, and put exercise high on your priority list. If you write it down, just like an appointment, it will be hard to break. Don’t put exercise on your general “to do” list; that’s too easy to stretch out into the next day (and the next, and the next – you get the idea).

If you think you don’t have time to exercise, you can probably find small stretches of time here and there that can be used to fit in some kind of fitness. When you’re on the phone, you can do stretches, sit-ups, lunges, etc. If you’re on the phone to a neighbor, suggest a walk around the block together – that way you can talk and fit in some exercise at the same time. Climb the stairs at work instead of taking the elevator. Take a 15-minute walk on your lunch break. Lift free weights at home for 10 minutes in the evening. All this counts!

Ideally, you should strive for 30 minutes of exercise per day. This can be broken up into segments, such as 15 minutes of brisk walking in the morning or on your lunch break, and another kind of physical activity in the evening – biking, playing soccer with the kids, or even taking another walk. Remember – any kind of exercise is better than none, and once you develop a routine, you’ll find yourself looking forward to this time for yourself, as you’ll feel better both physically and mentally.

I recently read some reasons (besides fitness benefits) why some women like to walk. See if you can relate to some of them:

  • Time to think.
  • Reduces stress.
  • Time to be with God.
  • Sweat out toxins.
  • Get a suntan.
  • Keeps me from eating during that time.
  • Makes me realize there is a world outside my house.
  • It refreshes my spirit about life.
  • More energy for everyday activity.
  • The dog loves getting out, too!

When you’re at home, the chores you do all count toward your fitness goal and well-being. Take the garbage out yourself. Haul the laundry basket up and down the stairs. While you’re watching TV, do some sit-ups and push-ups. During the warm months, get out and garden. Trim bushes. Rake the leaves. In the winter, shovel the snow off your porch and driveway – or at least help your husband or kids! All indoor chores – vacuuming, reaching and bending to dust, washing windows and floors – all these activities help burn fat and increase your metabolism.

Make time for yourself – you deserve it!