I hear a lot of talk at the gym about “burning off the holiday calories.” While some of us are joking about it, I know there are a lot of people whose primary purpose in going to the gym and working out is to burn calories and lose weight. Unfortunately, we aren’t going to burn off the pumpkin pie or the Halloween candy by working out.
We’ve all heard the expression “you can’t out-exercise a bad diet.” Most weight loss professionals will tell you that what you eat and how much you eat is far more important than how much you work out. There are myths about exercising out there and people will use them to justify either what they are eating or why they are or aren’t working out. One of my favorites is “I don’t want to build muscle because it weighs more than fat and I want to lose weight!”
While I am certainly not a weight loss professional, I’ve come to a few conclusions about the importance of regular exercise. I work out generally three times a week and it’s not to lose weight. What I eat has nothing to do with how much or how hard I work out and vice versa. Eating more carbs than normal doesn’t change whether I decide to add or skip a workout, nor do I eat more because it was an extra tough workout.
For me, the chief benefits of regular exercise has more to do with simply staying active. We’ve all heard the expression “use it or lose it” and it’s true with just about everything about the human body. If we don’t keep using it (whatever It is), our body stops maintaining it. As the Baby Boomers began aging, geriatric professionals began noticing certain trends such as decreased muscle mass, increased osteoporosis and more cognitive degeneration in the aging population. Because the Baby Boomers are such a large demographic, they were able to reach a few conclusions that pretty much confirmed the Use it or Lose it philosophy. If we don’t use our muscles, they atrophy and we are more likely to develop osteoporosis. The same is true of our brains: if we don’t regularly stimulate our senses and our minds, our brains will turn to mush!
When we choose not to exercise out of fear of falling, we start on a vicious cycle that can really hurt us because one of the chief benefits of exercising is flexibility. We all know what it’s like when we’ve been sitting still in a plane or a car for several hours: we get up and we’re stiff. Imagine how stiff you would be if you haven’t moved very much in several years! For a lot of us, that’s what has happened to us: we do the same four or five movements over and over again. We stand up, we sit down, we bend down from a sitting position, we lay down and get up from a sitting position. When was the last time you got up from the floor? When was the last time you bent down and touched your toes from a standing position? When was the last time you stretched up over your head or twisted around at the waist? Have you squatted down lately? All of these are important movements that keep those joint, muscles, bones and tendons in good working order. Calories are not the point of exercising but being able to move is!
A few weeks ago, I wrote about falling myself. I am rapidly approaching that “falling is dangerous” age: I’m a fifty-something female nearing menopause. I’ve already had hardware installed due a fall about fifteen years ago. I have screws in my leg along with a plate holding my wrist together. If anyone should be afraid of falling, it’s me! As it happened recently, I got up in the middle of the night and as I was walking around the bed, I stepped on the dogs’ tennis ball, lost my balance and ended up sitting down hard on the bed. This is where those three nights a week in the pool paid off for me: instead of falling over onto the bed (or worse, the dresser!), I twisted when I felt myself losing my balance. It was a natural reflexive reaction: not balanced– move! Instead of landing on my side, which could have bruised some ribs or sprained my arm, I landed on my well-padded butt. The next day, aside from feeling a little foolish, I had a couple sore muscles from twisting rather hard and fast, but otherwise, I was fine.
In fact, since that little accident, I have fallen again. This time I was loading my duffel bag in the car and I tripped on the dangling strap. Since I was outside, falling on the pavement could have resulted in more injuries, but I fell on the duffel, knee first and rolled into the flower bed. Again, the shoulder and knee that took the brunt of the fall were a bit sore but no bruises and no sprains. And in my opinion, it’s because I make a point of exercising three times a week: I was able to move when I fell and not be stiff as a board.
People think that “working out” means you have to lift heavy weights, run hard or use a treadmill for hours at a time. You can do that if you want to and it would probably be good exercise for you, but to keep your bones and muscles in good working order, all you need to do is use them on a regular basis, and as we get older, this is more important. We’ve all heard that as we age, we begin losing muscle mass and bone density, and then when we add in the Use it or Lose it effect, not exercising regularly is a recipe for disaster.
We all know older people who are afraid of falling or have fallen and seriously injured themselves. This is one of the chief excuses older people use for not exercising: “I’m afraid of falling or hurting myself.” It’s a valid fear, especially if you’ve not worked out in a long time (or never) and if you have balance or health issues. For me, balance was a big issue and in some instances, it still is. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t exercise or work out; it just means I should take a few precautions when I do. For me, one of those precautions is working out in a pool. My workout of choice is water aerobics: I get to exercise without being afraid of hurting myself by falling, and for those of people who think water aerobics isn’t a real workout, I dare you to try it!
I’ve been told by one of my trainers that most older people fall because they lose their flexibility in their core. Essentially, they stiffen up between their shoulders and their knees, so when they lose their balance, they come crashing down like a tree in the forest. This happened last year to my mom: she tripped on a throw rug and landed on her side, breaking her hip. When our bodies are used to bending and twisting, it’s easier for us to protect ourselves and instead of hitting the floor on our side (there’s the cause of a lot of broken hips!), we can twist to land on our butts. Or better yet, we can prevent ourselves from falling!
I have two small dogs along with a couple of cats, all of which increase my chances of either tripping over a toy (like the aforementioned tennis ball) or the actual pet. One of my dogs is habitually within two feet of my two feet! I never turn around or step back anymore without looking! Still, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve gone to step over, around or next to a toy or a pet and found myself grabbing a door jamb, the wall or furniture to steady myself. I was reminded yesterday as I stepped over a moving Cockapoo that not only has the exercise increased my mobility and flexibility, it’s also improved my balance!
After three years of regular workouts, I have better balance and flexibility as a 50+ year old than I ever did in my 40’s. It shows in my ability to walk longer and farther in addition to being able to bend, lift, squat and get up off the floor without using a chair to help myself up. When I got to my feet after falling in the flower bed, I was reminded of the last time I fell outside. I had stepped back into a hole and landed flat on my back on the lawn. At the time, I was in my mid-forties and went over like the proverbial tree in the woods. Although I didn’t injure myself, mainly because the lawn was soaking wet after weeks of rain, I had to use the lamp post near the walkway to help myself up simply because I couldn’t do it on my own! This time, although the wall of the house was right there, I was able to stand up in the flower bed without really thinking about it: I was more concerned if I’d cut myself on the bush I nearly hit.
Even though exercise isn’t a major factor in my weight loss, it remains one of my primary goals. Working out regularly has taught me a lot about the importance of staying active and staying flexible besides saving me from my own clumsiness. Until I had regained my balance and flexibility, I honestly had not realized how much I had truly lost and I don’t ever want to lose that again!