Fitness After Fifty: One Woman’s Journey

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"Eat less, move more,” was the advice I got from my doctor when I complained that I had been gaining weight, even though my diet had not changed and I was “on the move” as much as ever. Dr. Rekha Kumar, whose primary specialties are endocrinology, diabete, and metabolism at Weill Cornell Medicine-New York Presbyterian Hospital, explained that for those like me, who are 50+ and post-menopause, insulin resistance is common. This is the inability of your body to properly convert food into energy. It instead turns it into fat and stores it. (My storage space is also known as my hips.) 

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So, for me, “eat less,” didn’t mean just smaller portions, but having a lot fewer carbs and cutting back on sugar. To be clear, I value potatoes, pasta, and chocolate the way others regard silver, gold and platinum, so I enlisted the help of Dr. Kumar’s Weill Cornell colleague, Registered Dietician Janet Feinstein, MS, RD, CDN, for help with meal alternatives. I was shocked how easy it was for me to interchange a lettuce bed for bread when I was making a sandwich, substitute spaghetti squash for the flour and dough kind, and—thanks to Green Giant's cauliflower-based products —trick myself into thinking I was having mashed potatoes or rice. The “move more” part of the conversation was actually where I had difficulty.

If I had been a Spice Girl, I would not have been Sporty. My solution to exercise has always been walking. However, when pinned down, I had to admit that as much as I hoofed it, I also took cabs and public transportation. Since walking—when done at the right pace—is great exercise, Dr. Kumar and I decided on 10,000 steps a day, and perhaps down the road, adding hand weights. Some days, it seems daunting, but I do it anyway. My regimen has not only helped me start to drop weight—in a slow and steady way—but sleep better as well. Just out of curiosity, though—in case I’m ever feeling more ambitious—I reached out to Dr. Allen S. Chen, MD, MPH Director of Physiatry for New York-Presbyterian/Columbia/ Spine Hospital. (FYI: Physiatry is also known as Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.) The advice he imparted benefits both the newcomers to fitness, as well as those who have always been athletic. First and foremost: Check with your doctor before embarking on or changing any type of exercise regimen.

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For those like me, who didn’t get the feel-the-burn gene, it’s obvious that we should start slowly. Dr. Chen explained what that means: “Going from being a non-exerciser to an exerciser should be both consistent and enjoyable; if you like the activity, the chances are you’ll stick with it.” He tells his own patients to focus on three things: cardio, flexibility, and strengthening. “Cardiovascular exercises keep the heart strong. Begin with ten minutes a day. It may not seem like much, but ten minutes is better than no minutes. Walk, jog, bike, swim; just as long as it’s consistent. Flexibility exercises like stretching can be done two to five minutes a day; again, consistency is what’s important.

Strength training, however, can be done once or twice a week to start. This can include Resistance bands squats or lunges.” These can be done at home; no fancy gym membership needed. For you who have been doing the Gwyneth Paltrow/Tracy Anderson thing for decades, the reality is that you will experience the same age-related body changes as other seniors and these changes affect the type of training used.

 

There is also the increased likelihood of injury, which can be devastating to the mature athlete because recovery time is longer for aging muscles. Dr. Chen says, “It’s perfectly fine to keep doing whatever exercise you do, unless you begin to experience symptoms you never felt before.” He did cite exceptions: “Explosive activities, such as CrossFit, Plyometrics (jump training), or any high intensity activities are risky for those 50-plus because they put a lot of stress on muscles and joints.” He didn’t say you had to cut them out, just perhaps cut back and replace them with gentler activities, such as the aforementioned jogging, walking, swimming, etc. Remember, your fitness journey begins with a single step. Or, in my case, 10,000.

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