September is Healthy Aging Month. This is a good time to examine some of the myths that can interfere with healthy aging.
Myth #1: There’s no such thing as healthy aging — getting older means getting less healthy.
Our bodies change as we get older. Skin loses elasticity, bones become weaker, and the number of connections between nerve cells become weaker. So we might as well relax about healthy habits, right? It’s time to embrace these natural changes and accept aging!
Actually, there is plenty of evidence that the same healthy habits we’ve been working on all our lives continue to make a difference — even if we don’t take them up until later in life.
Here are some things that research proves will encourage healthy aging:
- Quit smoking. The body can repair some of the damage done by smoking if you quit.
- Exercise regularly. Research shows that regular exercise, especially the kind that gets your heart rate up, is good for your body and your mind as you age. Studies also show that exercise is beneficial for older adults who have not exercised before. You are literally never too old to start exercising.
- Eat right. USDA guidelines are slightly different for adults 60 and over. This group may need fewer calories but more nutrition, so making every bite count is especially important. Most people in this group eat more sugar and more saturated fat than recommended. They also usually get less fiber than needed. Increase fruit, vegetables, dairy products, and whole grains, and cut back on fast food and desserts.
- Get enough sleep. Older adults may have more trouble sleeping than younger people, but research shows that we need 7-9 hours of sleep throughout our lives. Good sleep hygiene is important.
- Stay connected with other people. One of the things that research shows is more important for healthy aging than for lifelong healthy living is social connections. Loneliness is an epidemic among older adults, and it is clear that social connections are important for brain function as we age.
Myth #2: Older people can’t exercise vigorously enough to make a difference.
Why bother trying to exercise? Young people can get out and build muscle and cardiovascular health, but you know you can’t get the results you did when you were young. There’s no point in doing it halfway.
In fact, there’s every reason to start wherever you are in terms of physical fitness.
Many studies have been done to discover the effects of starting an exercise program at age 50 or older — even into your 90s. One recent study looked at a number of tests of the value of chair-based exercise and found that even these very mild exercises made a big difference for sedentary people.
Start with what you can do consistently, and work your way up to more vigorous exercise over time.
Myth #3: It’s not a high priority
While older people may work less, they often have other things in their lives that may seem more important than healthy living. Enjoying grandchildren, hobbies, travel, and friends may be more appealing than exercising or taking the time and trouble to eat healthily.
Exercise is in fact the most important thing you can do as you age. Getting just 150 minutes of vigorous exercise a week can extend your life expectancy, increase your independence, and help you avoid chronic diseases. That’s a mere 13% of the total number of minutes you have available to you in a week. Start with 5 minutes a day and build up to 30 minutes a day over time.
As for healthy eating, why not make it more fun? Learn to cook Mediterranean foods, share healthy meals with friends, or find new vegetable dishes in local restaurants. Upping the fun quotient may help you increase the priority of eating well.
Myth #4: Exercise might be dangerous for the elderly.
What if you fall? What if your heart can’t take walking or biking? Can you handle sore muscles at your age? Isn’t it safer to stay in your chair?
Some older people are afraid to exercise. But regular exercise actually makes it less likely that people will fall or hurt themselves. Talk with your doctor about a safe and healthy exercise program for your needs.
Myth #5: Older folks are not vain anymore.
Younger people may work to look good on the beach or to show off their moves on the dance floor. Older folks can relax about their looks, so they don’t need to work out or watch their waistlines.
One study found that elderly people who exercised regularly for six months ended up with thicker, tighter skin. So you might look better if you exercise regularly.
But you will definitely feel better. Older people with healthy habits are less likely to feel depressed and more likely to avoid heart disease and strokes. Even if you’re not vain, these are worthwhile outcomes.
Myth #6: Older people have paid their dues.
Retired people have worked hard all their lives so they can relax, travel, and do what they feel like doing. If you don’t feel like exercising and eating right now you might as well indulge yourself!
No, really. We’re living longer than ever. The choice for many of us is not even to live longer with healthy habits or to have a shorter life if we indulge ourselves. We will probably live a long time as older adults, and our choice is whether we want to live those years feeling good, or feeling miserable.
There is no point in our lives at which we can really be sure that we’re too old to take good care of ourselves.
Cast off those myths and pick one small change you can make that will make a positive difference in your health. A year from now, you will thank yourself!