It’s never too late to focus on your health. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that life expectancy rates have hit an all-time high at 77.9 years, so it makes sense that our longer lives should be as full and vital as possible. From modifying eating habits to incorporating a fitness routine and trying something new, there is something out there for everyone.
“The most important thing a person can do is take care of this preventative medicine,” says Dr. Charlyce Davis with INTEGRIS Family Care Edmond – Coffee Creek Clinic.
“Establishing a physician, going in for annual checkups, discussing your past medical history and any family history is important for life-long health and to catch any potential issues early.”
Davis also says that immunizations are very important and often overlooked elements of being healthy. She recommends that at a minimum, seniors should receive an annual flu shot and the shingles vaccine.
Dr. Serena Mitroo, an internal medicine specialist with OU Physicians in Edmond, says that prior to beginning any fitness routine, setting a schedule and allotting time helps to keep focused on specific goals.
“If a senior wants to work out to lose weight, he should do at least 50 minutes of exercise five days a week. If he has never exercised or it’s been a long time, 30 minutes three times a week is recommended to start.”
Arthritis, osteoporosis and joint issues are most commonly associated with aging, but seniors with any of these challenges can find a workout that fits their capabilities and limitations.
St. John Siegfried Health Club aquatic coordinator Brooke Rusher believes that the only limitations we have are the ones we set for ourselves.
“There really is no excuse. There are many programs that can accommodate anybody,” she says.
Rusher knows a thing or two about not accepting excuses, having designed a swimming program for a patient who had become blind and deaf.
“This gentleman had mentioned that he had previously enjoyed swimming. I would write in his palm – he could discern letters – and give him directions like ‘swim 10 laps.’ It got to the point where he could count the number of strokes before he reached the end of the pool so he wouldn’t bump the edge.”
St. John offers two pools with three entry methods – a ramp, stairs and a lift for wheelchairs. But before starting any fitness routine, it is highly recommended to consult a physician to discuss your plans, goals and what types of exercises are appropriate.
According to Rusher, the aquatic classes are the most popular among seniors since 75 percent of their body weight is supported in chest-deep water, helping with arthritis, back pain and similar ailments.
“Because weight is supported by the water, you can do more, like running or kicking. It definitely allows for an increased range of motion and increases balance and stability. Since water is denser than air, it’s a great cardiac workout.”
If getting into a swimsuit sounds like an exercise in awkwardness, there are also chair workouts available for those who can’t stand and exercise that utilizes dumbbells, resistance bands and tubing, creating an excellent cardio workout.
“In group classes, you’re also getting a social network,” Rusher says. “I think that’s what keeps people coming. A class-type setting builds camaraderie. Our class members care if someone is missing – they want to know what’s going on in each person’s life. It’s a support system.”
Exercise is just one part of the equation to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Nutrition is equally important to keep the body’s systems firing on all cylinders.
“There are two main things that seniors need to focus on – water and balanced nutrition,” says registered dietician Suzanne Forsberg at St. John Healthy Lifestyles
“We see a lot of urinary tract infections. Most seniors really do need to drink more water.”
According to Forsberg, as you age, your taste buds decrease, leaving primarily the sweet area of taste. Many older Americans prefer sweet or sugary foods, resulting in a lack of varied nutritional foods.
“I like to use the Basic Four guidelines – fruits and veggies, dairy, bread and meat – when working with seniors,” she says. “Most remember the Basic Four from before the Food Pyramid was established.”
Forsberg speaks with everyone about dietary pitfalls she calls “zingers” – foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat.
“Fat, sugar and salt hits the Hedonist hotspot – the pleasure center of the brain. Fries are a good example of a zinger. Doughnuts as well. If you take two of the three out of a meal, like replacing milk and butter in mashed potatoes with onions, you are full without feeling like always going back to the dish for more.”
Breakfast food can often be loaded with zingers. Replacing fattening and sugary foods in the morning with healthier options can set the tone for the rest of day.
“I suggest protein like non-fat Greek yogurt with blueberries for breakfast, or egg whites and soy sausage,” says Forsberg. “Protein is very important in the morning – it gives you that alertness. Once you get the fat, sugar, salt combo out of your system, you start wanting healthier foods.”
Another tip she offers is to get colorful with your meals. Easy to remember, eating fruits and vegetables of red, yellow, green, blue and purple are essential to getting much-needed antioxidants.
“Seniors tend to go to restaurants all the time,” Forsberg says. “I recommend more homemade meals. Going out is a social activity, but you can have that same social interaction with meals at home. Host a dinner party. People tend to eat with people who have the same eating habits.”
While organic and non-processed foods are receiving a lot of attention, Forsberg doesn’t believe that you have to remove pre-packaged foods from your diet to be healthy.
“You don’t have to eliminate processed foods – they have their place. Not everything has to be organic or fresh – frozen veggies are just as good. Packaged food can work in a healthy meal, and they are good for people with orthopedic issues who can’t stand and cook all the time.”
The best side effect of exercising in a group setting or hosting dinner parties is the socialization it promotes.
Being around groups of people helps combat one of the quietly discussed issues of aging: depression.
“I think most senior patients have some mood issues – depression, being isolated,” says Mitroo. “Being active and social is very important. Volunteering is a popular method of interacting and most of my patients feel good that they are giving back to the community.”
Adds Davis, “I have many older patients who are starting new careers. I really don’t accept age as an excuse. It’s just a number.”