According to an old saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” There is at least some truth to this statement as many people find it more difficult to adopt new habits as they age. While it may be more difficult to change behaviors, implementing good health habits can be particularly beneficial as one grows older.
Exercising and eating healthy, well-balanced meals high in fiber are two health habits that may be challenging for people to embrace at any age. People age 60 and older may be unsure about how to make these lifestyle changes and stick to them. However, there are several strategies that make adopting these habits easier.
Adults resist making changes in their health habits for several reasons. Some adults may think that they are too old for any change in their habits to make a difference in their health. Others may feel that at this point in their lives, changes are more trouble than they are worth. However, the reality is that making even small behavioral changes can have a major positive impact on someone’s health. By making changes like increasing their activity levels and eating healthy meals rich in fiber, people age 60 and older may be able to feel as good as they did at age 40. Or, they may be able to feel even better.
The following are some examples of benefits that older adults can gain from exercising more and eating healthy.
Benefits from Exercising:
• Exercise improves strength, flexibility, and balance in older adults. At any age, increased physical activity strengthens muscles and enhances flexibility and posture, which in turn results in better balance and coordination. Among older adults, falls commonly cause injuries and disability. However, having stronger muscles and better flexibility, balance, and coordination makes someone less likely to fall.
Additionally, as people get older, they may develop a condition called osteoporosis where their bones become thinner and more brittle. However, increased physical activity strengthens bones and prevents the loss of bone mass. When bones are stronger, they are less likely to break in the event of a fall, so increased physical activity actually makes it less likely that older adults will become injured.
• Exercise improves brain function. In addition to improving the body, exercise also improves the mind. Exercise makes the brain function better and helps it to stay active, which prevents memory loss, cognitive decline, and dementia. Studies have found that even doing simple exercises regularly, such as walking briskly, improves people’s abilities to think and make decisions. Additionally, exercise may help to slow the progression of disorders of the brain (ex. Alzheimer’s disease).
• Exercise decreases the impact of illness and chronic disease. Even doing moderate amounts of physical activity has been shown to improve chronic (or ongoing) health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and colon cancer. Not only does exercise improve the effects of these conditions in people who already have them, but it also helps to lower people’s risks for developing chronic diseases that they do not currently have.
• Exercise can improve mood and self-confidence. Exercise gives people more energy and makes them look and feel younger, which leads to more confidence and self-esteem. Additionally, chemicals that the body produces during exercise called endorphins can make one feel better and decrease feelings of sadness and depression.
• Exercise can help one stay active and maintain independence longer. When people are active, they can maintain the endurance necessary for daily activities, including house cleaning and running errands. By exercising, people can also reduce the number of hospitalizations, doctor’s visits, and medications they need, which will help them to sustain their independence longer.
• Exercise helps one lose or maintain weight. As people age, their metabolisms naturally slow down, meaning that their bodies burn fewer calories. Increasing the level of physical activity can help a person burn more calories. This in turn aids one in controlling his or her weight, which leads to better health.
Benefits from Healthy Eating:
• Eating healthy can help one live longer. Getting the proper nutrition keeps muscles, bones, organs, and other body parts strong and healthy for the longest period of time possible. A healthy diet can also ward off the development of osteoporosis and help a person keep his or her weight under control.
When people eat right, they boost their immune systems to be able to fight against toxins and germs that cause illnesses as well. Additionally, the proper diet can reduce the impact of chronic, life-threatening conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and stroke. Eating a healthy, balanced diet can prevent people from getting these conditions in the first place, and it can also improve these conditions in people who already have them.
• Eating healthy can improve brain function. The brain needs certain nutrients (ex. omega-3 fatty acids, folate) to work properly, so when people consume these nutrients by eating healthy meals, they can focus better and have improved brain functioning. Additionally, getting the proper nutrition can help prevent conditions of the brain, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
• Eating healthy can make one feel better. When people get the proper nutrition, they have more energy, look better (which improves their self-esteem and self-confidence), and have more positive moods.
People age 60 and older may be aware of the benefits of becoming more active and may want to exercise more, but they may be unsure about how to start. If a person age 60 or older has not been physically active in a long time, he or she should talk with his or her doctor about his or her exercise plans. Doctors can tell people if there are any activities they should avoid because of health concerns.
A person age 60 or older should also start to increase his or her physical activity level slowly. It may be harmful to a person to go from not being very physically active to exercising strenuously. Slowly and building up endurance and strength over time can help someone avoid exercise-related injuries.
People who are just starting to become more physically active should keep in mind that exercise should not be painful or make one feel sick. Muscle soreness after increasing physical activity is normal and will go away in a few days once a person’s body becomes used to exercising. However, one should stop exercising immediately and call a doctor if he or she experiences pain, feels dizzy or short of breath, develops chest pain or pressure, breaks out in a cold sweat, or has a joint that is red, swollen, and/or tender to the touch. These signs could indicate that a person has injured him or herself working out or that the activity is exacerbating an existing health condition (ex. heart disease).
People age 60 or older may also wonder about which physical activities are best for getting started. Walking is one of the easiest ways to exercise for many people. Gardening, dancing, fishing, yoga, Tai Chi, or swimming can also be good activities to participate in if one is just starting out to become more active. People should look for activities that they enjoy doing so that they will be more likely to continue them.
As people become more used to exercising, they should look to incorporate activities from each of the four types of exercises to maximize their benefits. These four types of exercise are endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility.
• Endurance: Endurance activities get the heart pumping harder and make someone breathe harder than normal. These activities are beneficial because they help to increase a person’s energy level. Doctors recommend doing this type of activity for 30 minutes a day on most or all days of the week. (One does not have to complete 30 minutes of activity at one time, though. He or she can split it up into smaller periods of time, such as three 10-minute activities.) Examples of this type of exercise include walking, climbing stairs, swimming, hiking, cycling, playing tennis, and dancing.
• Strength: Strength exercises build up muscle with repetitive motion using weights or some type of resistance, such as the body’s own weight, a weight machine, or elastic bands. If a person does not have weights or elastic bands, he or she can even lift objects like soup cans, books, or bottles of water. These types of exercises also prevent loss of bone mass, improve balance, reduce falls and injuries, and make everyday activities like getting up from a chair, lifting objects, and walking easier.
• Balance: One can also do exercises that are specifically designed to focus on and improve balance. These activities involve maintaining stability when stationary and also when moving. In addition to improving balance, these exercises improve one’s posture and reduce one’s risk of falling. Examples of these types of exercises include standing on one foot without holding onto anything for support, getting up from a chair without using hands or arms, and yoga or Tai Chi.
• Flexibility: Flexibility exercises challenge a joint’s ability to move through its full range of motion so that it is less prone to injury. Stretching is an example of a flexibility exercise and should be performed when muscles are already warmed up to prevent injury. Increasing flexibility can make everyday activities, such as tying shoes, looking backward while driving, and playing with children, easier.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet means eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Eating foods with calcium (ex. milk, yogurt, cheese, and broccoli) is also important because calcium helps to prevent osteoporosis. Additionally, people age 60 or older should make sure to eat healthy sources of protein (ex. fish, beans, peas, nuts, etc), drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration, and consume recommended daily doses of important vitamins, such as vitamin B (which is essential in the functioning of blood cells and nerve cells) and vitamin D (which makes it possible for the body to use calcium).
Reducing sodium to prevent high blood pressure, eating “good fats” (ex. those found in olive oil, avocados, salmon, walnuts, etc) to control cholesterol levels, and avoiding unhealthy carbohydrates (ex. white flour and white rice) because they have been stripped of all nutrients are tips for eating healthier as well.
Eating more fiber is an important way that people age 60 and older can improve their diets too. Eating fiber is healthy because it helps the colon work better (which makes it more likely that one will avoid constipation), reduces the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and may improve cholesterol levels (which can help one avoid other serious health problems like heart disease).
Foods that are high in fiber include fresh or dried fruits, fresh vegetables, grainy breads (ex. whole wheat, rye, pumpernickel), beans, unprocessed wheat bran, unrefined breakfast cereals, and foods made with whole wheat or rye flour. People may believe that getting more fiber involves changing their diets drastically, but it does not have to be that challenging. Instead of trying to change one’s entire diet, it is helpful to focus on making one small change at a time and keeping an open mind. For example, a person could try substituting a low-fiber grain (ex. a piece of white bread) with a high-fiber grain (ex. whole grain bread). Or try to eat a high-fiber snack food each day.
Although there are numerous benefits to becoming more physically active and eating a healthy diet when one is age 60 or older, it can be difficult for people to change habits that they have practiced for years. Also, sticking with new habits can be difficult as well, particularly when those habits involve activities that are not always easy, such as exercising. The following are some strategies that can help people change and maintain their health habits:
• Get support from others. People find that exercising and eating right are easier to do when they have others around them doing the same thing. Exercising with a partner, joining an exercise group or class, and eating healthy meals with family members or friends are ways to help one make lasting behavioral changes. Additionally, a person can ask his or her friends or family members for help with his or her new healthy habits. For example, friends and family members can help a person brainstorm healthy meals.
• Introduce variety. Eating the same foods and doing the same exercises day after day can lead to boredom. However, trying new foods and new forms of exercise can help keep people engaged and motivated in their new habits.
• Take small steps and appreciate progress. People can become less overwhelmed by changes when they break them down into smaller, more achievable steps. Additionally, appreciating how one feels after each small change (ex. after taking a 30 minute walk) can help someone feel good, which may help him or her stay motivated.
• Make changes as simple and as enjoyable as possible. People are more likely to maintain healthy habits when they are easy and enjoyable. To make healthy eating easier and more enjoyable, people can stock their refrigerators with healthy snacks that they enjoy that do not require much preparation (ex. their favorite fruits). To make exercising easier and more enjoyable, people can look for opportunities to integrate exercise into activities that they already do and enjoy. For example, if a person enjoys shopping, he or she can window shop while walking briskly through a mall.
Although people age 60 or older may wonder if changing their habits will even do them any good at that point in their lives, the reality is that even small changes in their eating and exercise habits can make a big difference in their overall health. Increasing physical activity levels and eating healthy diets high in fiber have numerous benefits for people at any age and have some particularly important benefits for older adults. Adopting and maintaining these healthy habits can help older adults maintain their independence, decrease their risk of falls and injuries, feel better, have more energy, and lessen the impact of serious illnesses.
Making changes can be overwhelming at any age, but it can be particularly difficult for older adults because they have spent longer practicing their old habits. Fortunately, there are strategies that can make these changes easier to adopt and maintain. These strategies include starting slow (ex. walking and eating one high-fiber snack each day), making changes as simple and as enjoyable as possible, having a support system in place, and appreciating the progress.