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Ready to exercise? It's never too late to start

How active do we need to be as we age? Turns out, exercise is key to maintaining mobility and quality of life as we age.

As I near 60, I feel the ever-increasing need to exercise. I can't say I love it but I do feel better after I've moved my body some. Like many, I have a sedentary job, spending the vast majority of my day sitting on my bottom in front of a computer screen. And the older I get, the grumpier I feel about that.

I'm not alone in this camp. Statistics Canada reports as little as 12 per cent of those aged 60 to 69 meet the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines of 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical exercise. The roughly 30 minutes a day, five days a week of moderate intensity activity such as brisk walking or strength training is what we need to enjoy benefits like reduced stress, increased self-esteem, flexibility, strong muscles and heart health and--maybe--weight maintenance, depending on our eating habits.

I recently challenged myself to the six-week 'Stronger For Longer' program aimed at women and men over 40 at Movimento Fitness in St. Albert, a gym near my home. I was worried I'd injure my inactive self; wrench my back doing a plank or some such core-focused exercise (it happened once before when my daughter encouraged me to try it on our living room floor--it didn't go well). But staff at this gym, which features customized training sessions (based on your goals, fitness level and any injuries/health conditions) followed by time on cardio machines, are experts on how to safely coach those of us who haven't put on a pair of runners or workout gear in decades. 

Juan Medrano, co-owner of Movimento Fitness, says he created the six-week program to help those over 40 become stronger, increase endurance and manage stress. "At this time of life, people want to keep up with their grandkids or aging parents. Exercise is a pill for longevity," he said. 

A body composition analysis starts the program, showing one's makeup of muscle, fat and strength. It can be a hard truth, when you've been inactive, but we all have to start somewhere, right? In fact, it's motivating to see where you're starting at, and then check in at three and six weeks to see if there's change. In my case it meant three less pounds of fat and three more pounds of muscle and while the number on the scale didn't move, I did start to sleep better and have more energy too. I even felt less grumpy, another bonus!

Supportive coaching is key to the approach here, as each training session has up to just three people working their routines under supervision. After a 15-minute warm up, trainers lead a 30-minute customized session (mine included lifting weights, sit ups, squats and more) capped off with 15 minutes on a treadmill, exercise bike or another cardio machine, or a combination of all of them.

"Even if you have a bad knee or elbow, back pain, arthritis, mid-life weight gain--the program is personalized and takes all that into account," Medrano said. "Learning how to safely strength train is vital to your body and health as you age, but it's about pursuing your goals from whatever fitness level you're at. You're never in competition with anyone else."

It is nice to have people greet me by name when I come in for the twice weekly workouts--trainers ask how my weekend was, and did I make good choices at that buffet dinner I attended? There's something to be said for feeling you belong, knowing someone will ask after you--it's that accountability thing. 

Dr. Haidong Liang, executive director at the Westend Seniors Activity Centre, created an eight-week fitness program for seniors that became especially important during the pandemic and he agrees it's more about strength training as we age.

"I firmly believe the prevention of health problems and illness is more important than treatment and medicine," said Liang, who has been an instructor for the Physical Activity and The Aging Adult course at the University of Alberta. "Research shows you can gain muscle, regardless of age."

That's the prevailing message for working out as we get older. Increasing muscle strength increases your balance and bone density too, which helps prevent injuries from falls and keeps us mobile. 

"It's about quality of life, keeping your range of motion so you can do the tasks of daily living: reaching for a coffee mug from the kitchen cupboard or standing up from the chair at the doctor appointment," said Liang.

"Having a consistent exercise program just builds that habit," added Medrano. "Life happens, so if you don't have that structured schedule, then that workout likely isn't happening."

As for me, I think I'll continue with the twice weekly workouts. Did I just say that? Me, the non-gym person? Baby steps, building new habits.