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Staying Fit After 50

Although it sometimes seems as if weight gain is inevitable as we age, it doesn't have to be that way.

It all comes down to "energy in and energy out."

"Energy in" is the food that you eat and "energy out" is the amount of activity that you do.

You will need to do a combination of three things to stay fit after 50:

  • Watch what you eat
  • Exercise
  • Have discipline.
And remember that mom was right about everything -- except when she told you to clean your plate. Moderation is important, says Dr. Robert Butler, president and CEO of the International Longevity Center.

As you get older, there is a tendency to become less active. As a result, you lose muscle mass and the metabolism slows down, he explains. But if you remain active and maintain your muscle mass, your metabolism will not slow down much.

The diet industry concentrates on what you eat. But how active you are is just as important. Most evidence shows that your metabolism slows down from inactivity not age.

What does change are dietary needs as people age, he says. So if you are a postmenopausal woman, or a man over 50, Dr. Butler suggests cutting back on iron supplements. Iron can be dangerous because it accumulates in the heart and causes heart trouble.

He also recommends eating 5-7 fruits and vegetables a day and lots of fiber. After 50, men should consume 30 grams and women 21 grams per day. The reason? As we age, we are more likely to have bowel problems, and fiber helps the digestive system do its work.

People in this age group also tend to get atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) so they shouldn't eat more than 30 percent of their calories in fat and they should watch their cholesterol, making sure that it is below 200.

The physical changes that we undergo as we age are obvious: skin elasticity changes, muscle mass decreases if you don't keep it up, the GI track slows down because of a drop in hydrochloric acid in the stomach, reaction speed slows down. But if we stay fit and exercise body and mind, Dr. Butler says we can stay in shape.

Here are four components to keeping the weight off after 50:

  1. Aerobics:
    You should engage in real physical activity where you are sweating at least three times a week.
  2. Muscle Strengthening:
    Building strong muscles will keep your metabolism up (muscles burn more calories than fat) and help support your skeleton, keep your bones/back aligned properly. Also helps keep your body balanced (see 4).
  3. Stretching/ Flexibility:
    If you don't stretch your muscles, your body can become tight and rigid, making it more painful and difficult to do ordinary activities like putting on shoes and reaching for things on shelves.

    You can increase your flexibility by doing a series of stretches a few times a week. When you get up, you should do a few stretches, like lie on the floor and reach as far as you can in all directions, move your legs from side to side, do the mad cat position (arch your back), put your hands on the side of the doors and lean into the opening. You can also do those typical runner's stretches like stretching your hamstring and quadriceps. You should hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds; don't rock back and forth.

  4. Balance:
    It is important to do balance-building exercises so that you can react to situations and not fall and break a hip. You can do balance building exercises during the routine course of your day: stand on one leg while you are waiting in line, or go up and down on your toes.
  5. Brain Jogging:
    Exercise your brain by doing acrostics, crossword puzzles, or studying a language.
There are some sports that are better for you than others as you age, says Dr. Butler. For example, it's better to be a fast walker than a runner as you age (after 50) because you do less damage to your knees and ankles. A good fast walk can give you the same health advantages, he says.

Swimming gives you a good low-impact aerobic workout, but it doesn't build bone density because your feet are not hitting the ground. You need gravity fighting activity to build bone density. The pull of gravity helps the bones build density, and it is important to have dense bones as you age so that you don't get osteoporosis, or bone thinning, which is a particular problem for women as they age. About 15 percent of the osteoporosis cases are also men; 85 percent of osteoporosis cases are women because women have lighter bones to begin, Dr. Butler says.

The good news is that even if a person has had a sedentary life, it is never too late to exercise. Gradually, a person can get back in shape, he says.

About Dr. Robert N. Butler M.D.:
Dr. Butler is a gerontologist and geriatric psychiatrist; founder and president of the International Longevity Center; professor of geriatrics at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine where he founded the nation's first department of geriatrics in 1982. Former director of the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health (1975-82). Pulitzer Prize winner for his 1976 book "Why Survive? Being Old in America."

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