PINELLAS COUNTY - People with active lifestyles can live a longer, healthier, happier life.
Staying active has many physical and psychological benefits for people of all ages, but for the older population, the benefits can make a big difference in retaining health and independence, according to Jose Santana, M.D., MPH.
“Older people tend to think that the benefits of exercise and staying active are for the young,” Santana said.
But in reality the benefits are significant, even for people who didn’t exercise when they were younger.
Staying active and exercising can help fight cardiovascular disease for people over age 65, which is a significant portion of the population in Pinellas County, he said.
The American Heart Association lists lack of exercise as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, he said, and sedentary lifestyles are bad for the heart the same as high cholesterol.
Cardiovascular problems are the No. 1 cause of death and disability for people over age 65.
Exercise and staying active also can help people with osteoporosis and arthritis, Santana said. It helps joints remain flexible and strengthens bones.
Hip factors are the No. 1 cause for women ending up in nursing homes, he said, and exercise is a good preventative measure.
“Exercise doesn’t mean joining the gym or doing strenuous workouts,” he said. “Exercise can be as simple as walking around the mall or doing wall pushups. Even walking to the mailbox or around the yard can be good.”
People who are unable to walk also can exercise by lifting two-pound weights - water bottles or even a bag or rice can serve as a weight for arm lifts, he said.
“Regardless of physical condition, there is something you can do to help increase joint flexibility and stay active,” he said.
Other good activities include volunteer work and babysitting the grandkids.
“Chasing kids around is good exercise,” he said. “And it has a wonderful effect on quality of life.”
Before starting any exercise program, Santana advises people to talk to their doctor or health care provider. He said health care providers will give people guidelines for exercise including starting off with a warm up and stretching. He said if people experience chest pains, dizziness, pain or become nauseated they should talk to their doctor.
People who have always been active should not get discouraged if they find they are not able to do as much as they could when they were younger, he said.
“Getting older does not mean you have to stop exercising,” he said. “You may have to modify your routine, but you should definitely march on and keep exercising.”
And, for people who have never exercised, Santana said it’s never too late to start.
“I truly believe you can start anytime and reap the benefits,” he said.
Exercise and active living not only rewards with physical benefits, staying active also is good for mental health.
Exercise helps build self confidence and can combat depression, feelings of loneliness and lack of motivation, he said. Increasing activity levels also increases energy levels.
Activities such as volunteer work or joining a bridge club help increase social interaction and help maintain cognitive abilities.
“Anything that requires concentration, maintaining a chain of thought, planning ahead help retain cognitive abilities and fights memory loss allowing people to maintain independence longer,” he said.
Santana said people should pick activities that they enjoy and can do for the long term.
“It should not feel like a chore or they won’t keep it up,” Santana said. “They need to find something they enjoy and something convenient to do.”
He said the No. 1 excuse people give for not exercising is the weather. However, it’s important to find activities to do even when it’s cold, hot or raining, such as walking at the mall or around the house, Santana said.
“I can’t stress enough the benefits of exercising and staying active,” he said. “People tend to get caught up in daily routines and tend to believe they need more sophisticated intervention to stay healthy.”
But active living can be as beneficial as drugs or expensive treatments, he said.
“People who take a proactive approach to exercise can live a happier, longer, healthier life and retain independence,” he said.
Dr. Santana has a master’s degree in public health and is a primary care physician in Dunedin. He specializes in geriatrics.