In the 1980s, Nike ascended to a global marketing icon with their advertising campaign “Just Do It.” Athletes from Bo Jackson to Michael Jordan to Roger Federer boiled down their incredible feats to a matter of attitude: don’t overthink it, just do it.
Similar thinking applies in the domain of healthy aging: just move it. Inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death and about 1.5 billion people in the world are inactive to the point that it risks their long-term health. At a health care conference several years ago, four recent surgeon generals were asked for one tip for successful aging. They coalesced on one word: move.
If physical exercise was a drug, it would be a blockbuster. Exercise has been shown to have an impact on our physical wellbeing in a plethora of ways: from strengthening muscles to improving heart conditions to sharpening minds. These benefits have been shown to have an impact on all age groups. In fact, some of the biggest benefits of exercise accrue to those in middle age and beyond. There’s also research that suggests that there are significant benefits if one moves from a sedentary to an active lifestyle later in life.
A recent visit to the doctor confirmed I have middle-aged knees. I’ll need to manage my usage to make sure I can be active and pain-free over the course of a long life.
Some types of exercise may be better than others, but these differences can mask the importance of simply being active. More intense workouts that materially improve conditioning, like interval training or hiking hills, have been shown to improve cellular health, rebuild muscle and elevate strength. Such training appears to also improve memory and ward off cognitive decline. However, the biggest benefits may be accrued by simply being more active more often. Brisk walking on a more regular basis may be the antidote for many people.
While living longer is generally desirable, a longer lifespan matched with a corresponding health span is ideal. This is one of the reasons why being active is so important. Walking without assistance is probably one of the most significant factors that determines if a person can live independently. It’s an example of use it or lose it.
Below are some life hacks to make being active more of a reality:
Life Hack #1
Make It Part of Your Routine and Start Small
Make space in your schedule to be active. Find a time of day and days of the week when exercising works best for you. I have a middle-aged friend who runs religiously 15 minutes per day. It has become such a habit that he runs even when on work travel, even if that means jogging in the airport. Stanford behavioral scientist, BJ Fogg, advocates starting with tiny habits.
There are more relaxed options, too. One approach is to seek out activity in your normal course of life. Take stairs. Eschew grocery delivery and go grocery shopping. When running errands, park some distance from stores to get extra steps in or, better yet, bicycle to do your errands. My bike has a rack for bags and I do about half of my local errands on two wheels. Picking up milk requires about 20 minutes of movement.
Team sports, including tennis, have been shown to have particular benefits in health and longevity.
Life Hack #2
Team Up with Others
Exercise with friends. A Copenhagen City Heart Study found that the best types of exercise for improving life expectancy are athletic activities that involve others. Tennis, badminton and soccer outperformed often solitary strenuous pursuits like running, swimming, and cycling. In fact, regular tennis players were shown to live about 10 years longer than those with more sedentary lifestyles and over five years longer than joggers.
You are more likely to follow through on a commitment because it’s harder to bail on friends than yourself. If you sign up for a larger event, like a 10K run or half-marathon, it can be an excuse to exercise with friends regularly in preparation. Sufferfest is a semi-annual event that brings dozens of middle-aged men together for overly ambitious adventures. Much of the exercise and comradery comes in the training leading to the event.
Life Hack #3
Live in a Place that Makes It Easy
Some places make it easier to be active. Certain regions of the country, like the West, over-index for physical activity. Some metropolitan areas, such as New York, San Francisco and Boston, boast high walkability, and Portland, Oregon is considered the most bike-friendly city, with more than 5% of residents biking to work. Some neighborhoods make activity part of the normal course of life.
Physical dwellings make a difference, too. We added a home gym in the garage with free weights during the pandemic, and ease of access has increased activity. Design elements can also reduce the risk of bad things happening. Falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths in older adults, and most falls occur in the home setting. Incorporating universal design features, particularly in bathrooms, such as low- or no-threshold showers, blocking for grab bars in the future, and slip-resistant floor tiles, can be valuable, preventative measures.
Making a Post-Pandemic Commitment
The formula is simple: just move it. If you’re already active, keep it up. If there is an opportunity for improvement, use this time to make a post-pandemic commitment to be more active. Part of the silver lining from COVID-19 is that more states, cities, and neighborhoods are recognizing the importance of creating usable outdoor spaces. Bike lanes are being added at an unprecedented rate and more areas are being transformed to elevate walking over parking for cars. The rest is up to you. As Bo Jackson would say, just do it.
Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.
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