Assistant helping an elderly person walk

We all know that exercise is good for us, and if you’re like most people, you’ve probably made a New Year’s resolution to do more of it. Unfortunately, this is one of the most challenging resolutions for most of us to keep.

Physical activity is vital in improving health as well as lowering the risk for many disorders, including diabetes, stroke, cancer and heart problems. We also know that physical activity benefits brain health and reduces fall-related injuries, as well as improves how people feel, function and sleep.

Who can benefit from a regular exercise routine? Everyone, from children as young as three to adolescents, adults and older adults, including women during pregnancy and the postpartum period and adults with chronic health conditions and disabilities.

Here’s how to exercise more
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends adults ages 18 – 65 complete a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous cardiovascular exercise each week. Cardiovascular exercise simply means performing an activity that increases your heart rate. You can choose from many options, including walking, running, bicycling and rowing.

An accurate way of determining whether you are achieving moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise is to use a heart rate monitor such as a Fitbit or similar product. Don’t have any fancy equipment? No worries! You can you use the simple Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale (RPE).

Like the pain scale most of us are familiar with, you can rate your level of exertion by using a 0 – 10 scale. Think of zero as at rest and not physically exerting yourself and 10 as you are working so hard it feels almost impossible to continue as you would be out of breath, unable to talk and unable to maintain the activity for more than a very short time.

Moderate intensity is working at a 4 – 6 on this scale, causing heavy breathing but being able to hold a short conversation. You are still somewhat comfortable, but the activity you are performing becomes noticeably more challenging the longer you do it. Vigorous intensity is working at a 7 – 8. At this level you will be borderline uncomfortable and short of breath, but you can still speak a sentence.

I recommend spreading aerobic activity throughout the week. One way to achieve this is to do 30 minutes of moderate or 20 minutes of vigorous exercise five days a week. Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes (five hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.

Remember, too, to move more and sit less throughout the day, and some physical activity is better than none. Adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity gain health benefits.

Guidelines for older adults
The guidelines for adults also apply to older adults, but for older adults, there’s more to consider.

Older adults should do multicomponent physical activity that includes balance training as well as aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. Older adults should determine their level of effort for physical activity relative to their level of fitness. People with chronic conditions should understand whether and how their conditions affect their ability to do regular physical activity safely. When a person cannot do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week because of age or disability, they should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow. Consulting your health care provider before engaging in physical activity is recommended.

Stay (or get) strong. Lift those weights
In addition to regular cardiovascular exercise, on two or more days a week all adults, older and younger, should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups. Strength training differs from aerobic exercise as it specializes in the use of resistance to induce muscular contraction, which builds strength and endurance, increases the size of skeletal muscles and the density of bones and—an added benefit—develops better body mechanics thereby reducing your risk of falls and injury.
Many people are under the impression that activities such as walking, running or cycling are enough to check off the lower-extremity strength box. Don’t be fooled; those exercises are typically not enough to build true muscular strength.

What will build strength is resistance training using dumbbells, weight machines or resistance bands, body weight exercises such as pushups and crunches, and Pilates.

Stay flexible
For all ages, incorporating flexibility exercises into your routine will improve range of motion around your joints. Performing a dynamic warmup pre-workout will help reduce risk of injury by providing blood flow to your muscles and moving your body in the same way you move during exercise and sports.

Some examples of dynamic, or moving, stretches include pulling your knees to your chest or butt kicks while walking (check out this video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy9p20R-0jc). Do static stretches, not moving but holding a muscle in a tensioned position for a period of time, after your workout; stretch each major muscle group for 30 to 60 seconds and repeat twice for maximum benefit. Yoga is a great way to improve your flexibility. Include balance exercises in your routine; one easy way to do this is to stand on one leg while brushing your teeth.

Just get started
While the benefits of regular exercise for everyone, young or old, are widespread, it can be challenging for many people to fit exercise into their busy lives. Getting started is the hardest part, but once you get into the swing of things it truly becomes much easier.

If you are unsure whether exercise is safe for you, check with your health care provider for pre-exercise screening. Once you have been cleared for exercise, a physical therapist—a movement specialist in health care—can get you started.

And you don’t necessarily have to join an athletic club, either. Ask your physical therapist how to start and maintain an exercise program in the comfort of your own home.

Katherine Spencer holds a doctorate in physical therapy and is a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy. She works at Dee PT in Shelburne and can be reached by email. She lives in South Burlington.