I blame it all on Robert Preston — my dislike of exercise and fitness, that is. Now that I’m 65 and unretired and someone with Type 2 diabetes, I’m trying to change my attitude and habits about exercising (with mixed success). If you’re in your 60s or so, I’m here to tell you how and why you might want to become more active, too.
Back to Robert Preston. I loved him in “The Music Man,” but if you’re around my age, odds are that when you were a kid in gym class, you, too, were subjected to Preston’s 1962 recording of the song “Chicken Fat.”
Composed for President Kennedy’s Council on Physical Fitness by “The Music Man” creator Meredith Willson, it played relentlessly while elementary, junior high and high school kids touched their toes, and did jumping jacks, push-ups and pull-ups to lines like this:
“Push up every morning. Ten times! Push up starting low.
Once more on the rise, nuts to the flabby guys, go you chicken fat, go.”
Turns out, I’m not the only one whose fear and loathing of exercise has a link back to childhood.
Bad memories from gym class
A 2018 Iowa State University study of phys ed memories found that embarrassment from being made to feel incompetent by the PE instructor or other classmates or lacking perceived competence in the activity or sport “may have powerful, long-lasting effects on attitudes and behavior.”
Loretta DiPietro, 65, who chairs our current president’s Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee’s Aging Subcommittee, understands.
“You’re not the only one,” she told me. “When we ask older people, ‘Why aren’t you physically active?’ they say, ‘I’m not good at it.’”
It’s one reason DiPietro, a professor in George Washington University’s department of exercise and nutrition sciences, suggests we try to get more “physical activity,” not “fitness” or “exercise.”
Fitness and exercise, she says, “are scary words.”
Think ‘physical activity,’ not ‘exercise’
But physical activity, notes DiPietro, is “basically everything you do that uses your muscles and results in some ambulatory activity.” (That, I can do.)
“So, walking across the room, lifting, carrying, raking leaves, doing laundry, it’s all good,” says DiPietro. And, she adds, “one of the best pieces of evidence that came from doing the recent [federal physical activity] guidelines is that it doesn’t have to be vigorous, physical activity to count.”
Richard Ashworth, president and CEO of Tivity Health, which owns the nationwide SilverSneakers community fitness program for people 65+ with Medicare Advantage plans, says: “The number one most impactful way you can live a higher quality life is to be physically active. If you want to live the longest, the best thing you can do is have more friends. But if you want to live the highest quality life, what you want to do is be physically active.”
The current federal guidelines say that, for substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 2 ½ hours to 5 hours a week of moderate-intensity physical activity (it doesn’t have to be all at once) or 1 hour and 15 minutes to 2 ½ hours a week of vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity or — and here’s the important part — an equivalent combination of moderate-and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
Plus, the guidelines advise, adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity on two or more days a week.
New thinking about the right physical activities
In fact, the U.S. government guidelines suggest what’s known as “multicomponent physical activity” to help reduce the risk of injury from falls or injury from falls. This means including more than one type of physical activity, such as aerobic, muscle strengthening and balance training.”
DiPietro says that in the past, experts “thought the only thing that mattered for health was vigorous physical activity.” But now, she notes, analysts have discovered that moderate-intensity activity, light-intensity activity and vigorous physical activity “all counts.”
Think of daily physical activity as a glass of water, DiPietro says.
“What you want to do is fill that glass of water. You could turn on the tap and get a real vigorous flow of water, which would fill it up quickly. Or you could do a little vigorous and then some moderate and then a weak stream that will fill it up over the course of the day. It doesn’t matter how you fill your glass,’ she notes. “You should just try and fill it every day.”
Any physical activity, DiPietro says, is better than sitting.
The biggest gain in benefits, the government says, happen when you go from no physical activity to being active for just 60 minutes a week or roughly eight minutes a day.
Troubling numbers for older Americans
Problem is, many of us — especially those of us around 65 — aren’t doing anywhere close to what the government recommends.
In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthypeople.gov site, 31% of Americans 65 to 74 engage in no leisure-time physical activity. Overall, just 28% of men and 21% of women in the U.S. meet the government’s aerobic and muscle-strengthening guidelines.
You know, of course, all the bad things that can happen to you and your health if you’re an older adult and don’t exercise…er, get physical activity: an increased risk of falls, injuries, stroke, heart- and other chronic conditions and depression.
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also says people who do little or no physical activity are more likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 than those who are more physically active.
But what exactly does the government mean by moderate intensity, vigorous intensity aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities and how can you do them?
A guide to types of physical activities
Let me take them one at a time:
Moderate intensity aerobic activities: These are ones that produce a noticeable increase in your breathing rate and heart rate. You can talk, but not sing, while you do them. Examples: walking briskly, riding a bike on level ground, pushing a lawn mower or playing doubles tennis or pickleball.
Vigorous intensity aerobic activities: These are ones that produce large increases in your breathing and heart rate. When you do them, you can’t say more than a few words without pausing for a breath. Examples: running, jogging, swimming laps, riding a bike on hills and playing singles tennis or basketball.
Muscle-strengthening activities: These involve all the major muscle groups and include things like using exercise bands, weight machines, hand-held weights; doing push-ups, pull-ups, planks, squats and lunges (Robert Preston!); gardening chores such as digging, lifting and carrying things as well as some yoga postures and some forms of tai chi. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition, these exercises “should be performed to the point at which it would be difficult to do another repetition.”
If you’ve been largely sedentary like me, the key is to increase the amount of physical activity gradually.
According to the government’s physical activity guidelines report, “it can take months for those with low fitness to gradually meet their activity goals.” It’s best to start muscle-strengthening activities one day a week at a light or moderate intensity, for example, and then raise the level to two or more days a week, increasing the intensity slightly along the way.
What I’m doing — or trying
I’ve started to take DiPietro’s advice and am trying to get more physical activity into my life and build my stamina.
Aside from walking my dog, I’m now also trying to walk stairs rather than take escalators or elevators and park my car further away from my destination to force myself to get in more steps.
The weekend volunteering I’ve begun for the Furniture Assist nonprofit entails lifting and carrying pieces of furniture and heavy bags of clothes from owners’ cars into the warehouse or from the warehouse to recipients’ trucks.
And I’ve just become a member of my local YMCA so I can start taking twice-a-week, 50-minute “Lite Total Body Fitness” classes.
My wife, Liz, and I recently rode bicycles on the Atlantic City boardwalk from, and to, the town of Ventnor — roughly 5 miles each way. (Biking against the wind was harder for me.)
We’ve also just started taking up pickleball, which is a cross between tennis and Ping-Pong. I enjoyed getting my heart pumping, but confess I had to sit down a few times due to heat exhaustion (a problem that’s not uncommon for people with diabetes).
DiPietro’s advice: hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Passionate for Pickleball
“Pickleball is great for so many reasons,” DiPietro says. “It’s aerobic, it’s impact because you’re running on a court and it’s strategic, so it helps keep those marbles upstairs rolling around perfectly.”
A friend who’s roughly my age, public relations manager Rebecca Theim of College Park, Md., began playing pickleball a year ago. Now, she’s rabid about it.
“My goal is always to do at least a minimum of four to five days a week,” she told me.
Theim, who had a tennis scholarship while attending Northwestern University, now regularly enters pickleball tournaments. In fact, she and her partner were the second-best team from Maryland in the 2021 Maryland Senior Olympics.
Pickleball, she says, “is much more manageable than tennis — the court’s 40% of the size and the net’s about 6 inches lower.” Plus, she adds, it’s a lot less strenuous.
But playing pickleball is one reason Theim will be having surgery to replace both her knees in coming months. “I think it certainly accelerated it,” she says.
She also has Achilles tendinitis, which according to the Therapeutics Associates Physical Therapy website, “is often caused by a sudden increase in the amount or type of repetitive activity, such as going from never playing pickleball to playing it 4 times a week.”
How to get started becoming more active
I asked SilverSneakers’ Ashworth what retirees can do to become more physically active. His response: “If their doctor clears them to get started [with physical activity], walking is amazing,” Ashworth said. “Walking is a full-body activity — your arms, your core is engaged.”
DiPietro’s walking advice for older adults with diabetes: “Do that walking after each meal.”
Ashworth has three other suggestions to begin getting physical activity into your life in retirement: hiking, cycling and gardening. But, Ashworth says, “We all have different limits and capacities; knowing your own limitations is an important concept.”
DiPietro also recommends launching a walking plan, building up to a half-hour a day every day, especially if you don’t want a performance-based activity.
“Then, go to something fun like pickleball or a dance class or complementary exercises like tai chi,” she suggests.
Fitness and your finances
Ashworth mentioned a hidden benefit to getting regular physical activity: you can save money. By becoming healthier, you may be able to eliminate or reduce some of your prescriptions for ailments.
DiPietro says that for some people, physical activity means “I don’t have Type 2 diabetes anymore or I can go off my medication for hypertension.”
One CDC study found that people who attended a SilverSneakers gym or fitness class at least twice a week spent $1,250 less on healthcare in their second year of the program than those attending just once a week. The American Diabetes Association research showed that people with diabetes in SilverSneakers activities saved more than $1,600 in medical expenses their first year compared with others; they also had fewer hospitalizations.
Junking the old definition of retirement
DiPietro says trashing the traditional definition of retirement could help people in their 60s and older get more physical activity in their lives.
“I grew up in an era where older people were told, especially upon retirement, to relax and take it easy. And that is probably the worst advice we could have given,” she says. “The advice I have to give is: Use it or lose it. And that becomes especially so in older age.”
The National Institute on Aging has three free, helpful online tools to help you get started and keep going. There’s the Find Your Starting Point Activity Log; its guide to the four types of exercise (endurance, balance, flexibility and strength) and the Monthly Progress Test.
Remember, as the Chinese proverb says: a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.