Lifenhanced: FEATURED ARTICLE
Staying Active – Many Benefits to Maintaining an Active Lifestyle
Tom Jenkins has a plaque in his home in Pennsylvania that reads, “Life is like a bike. In order to keep your balance, you have to keep moving.”
The same can be safely said when it comes to the human body and staying physically active. The more active a person is, the more likely they are to maintain good health throughout life—especially as the body ages.
“As we age, one of the benefits of being physically active is an improved ability to do everyday activities in your life,” says Betsy Trumble, PT, MS, director, Inpatient Rehabilitation Post Acute Service, WellSpan Surgery and Rehabilitation Hospital in York, Pennsylvania. She has been a physical therapist for 23 years. “It is amazing how regular physical activity makes a difference in overall health. As we get older, aging affects our tissues, making it harder to do simple activities.” Regular exercise can counter the negative effects of aging, she says. “This may mean the difference of needing to rely on others or not,” Betsy says. Another benefit to keeping the body physically active is it has been shown that activity decreases falls in older adults, which is a leading cause of visits to the ER as well as a leading cause of death for older adults, says Sean Simonds, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS, CKTP, FMSE, ITPT, who has owned Specialized Physical Therapy in Asheville, North Carolina, for 10 years. Staying active also reduces one’s risk for cancer and heart or other diseases as well as increasing life expectancy, he says. It improves sleep and bone health, increases energy and focus and decreases depression and illness. “People are living longer, and exercise will improve the quality of life and a person’s ability to remain independent longer,” Sean says. “Our bodies are designed to move, not be sedentary, and I tell everyone as long as they are moving, I am happy.”
Andrew Parys and Chad Stalter agree exercising is important to good health.
Tom, who retired from a career in juvenile justice and child welfare that spanned more than 30 years, agrees. “Activity and exercise are always ways to clear my head so that I can be the best version of myself for my family, friends and those around me,” he says. “I have written memos and speeches while exercising when I was unable to do so at a desk. The mind becomes clear, open and receptive while in a state of movement. I have solved seemingly unsolvable issues while exercising. I have had many high stress jobs throughout my life, and I hesitate to think what my physical and mental well-being—as well as my relationships would look like without exercise.”
Benefits of Keeping the Body Moving
Aside from building and maintaining physical strength, cardiovascular strength and confidence, and supporting self-image and staying physically active, there are other benefits as well, clinicians agree.
About five years ago Tom was diagnosed with Charcot- Marie-Tooth disorder, a rare neurological degenerative disease that attacks the nerves and muscles in the lower legs. He says staying active and physically fit has helped slow the progression of his disease. “My focus is to develop a strong core so that I can compensate for my challenges with balance.”
Andrew Parys was born with amniotic banding and little had developed normally between his right thigh and foot. He was 12 months old when his parents and physician decided it would be best to amputate his leg below his knee so he could learn to use a prosthesis as a child. Having a prosthesis has never stopped Andrew, now 35, from exercising and staying physically active throughout his life—he played defensive end on his high school football team and today runs marathons. “Every amputee should do what they can to maintain their health and wellness,” he says. “While it’s important to everyone, to an amputee the difference between a strong body and a weak one can be the difference between being sedentary and living an active, fulfilling life.”
Listen to your Body, More is Less
While exercise is necessary, it doesn’t need to be triathlon intense, clinicians agree. Jacob Townsend, CPO, and Cara Yocum, CPO, with Ability Prosthetics & Orthotics’ offices in Asheville, North Carolina, and Hagerstown, Maryland, respectively, say while exercise is important, it is different for everyone.
“Physical activity does not need to be running marathons,” Cara says. “It’s best to start with small goals. If you haven’t walked in your neighborhood, start with walking one block before you aim for walking a mile.” Jacob says, “While intense exercise can be beneficial in some cases, low-intensity exercise offers many of the same benefits.” Exercise doesn’t have to happen every day. “Any amount can be beneficial,” he says. “Depending on what a person’s baseline fitness level is, as little as two to three times a week of low-intensity exercise can also provide many benefits.”
Sean says that moderate exercise is different for everyone. “While walking around the neighborhood might be strenuous for some, running uphill for two miles might be necessary for others. We usually recommend people do some kind of exercise every day. It doesn’t have to be super intense, but it does have to be a little bit of a challenge to get the most benefit from it.”
There was a point in Tom’s life when he felt it was necessary to train intensely to run marathons. “Now I believe less is more, if you are able to pay attention to the quality of your training,” he says. “Interval workouts are better for cardio improvement than long intense runs.”
There’s Gardening and Yoga, Too
Exercise comes in all forms, practitioners say. “People are usually more compliant with exercise when they do activities they enjoy,” Betsy says.
“Maintaining your hobbies indoor and out, taking part in a gym, and finding local activities are all ways of being active and promoting good health,” says Brian Nguyen, MD, a physiatrist with WellSpan Surgery and Rehabilitation Hospital.
There are plenty of activities that don’t require a gym membership, from hiking, biking, swimming, skiing, golfing, to yard work and gardening to yoga, Tai Chi and dancing.
The Benefits of Stretching, Rest
Children are usually as flexible as rubber bands, but that changes the older one gets. As important as it is to exercise and stay active, stretching is an activity that adults often overlook.
Stretching is especially important as a precursor to exercise or any physical activity, Brian says. “As we age our muscle can be more tense,” he says. “Stretching helps to warm up your muscles and can help to prevent injury.” When it comes to stretching, less can often be more. “As we age, things naturally stiffen up and stretching becomes more important,” Sean says.
“Some people think stretching needs to be a full hour of intense and painful stretching and that’s not the case. I recommend people do about 10 minutes of stretching most every night while they are watching TV. If you’re too stiff, then something as simple as getting out a chair or bending over to tie your shoes can be impossible.”
Tom says he stretches off and on throughout his day. “Before I get out of bed, I stretch,” he says. “I also stretch before and after each period of exercise. I have found that the older I get the more important stretching has become.”
Betsy agrees. Maintaining flexibility in the joints and tissues is an important aspect of overall health and the body’s ability to do simple or advanced activities, she says. “Our bodies tend to stiffen without activity and throughout the aging process,” Betsy says. “Stretching throughout the day and during exercise is necessary to maintain flexibility and minimize the risk for injury to our joints and muscles and prevent strains and sprains.”
Stretching is a good way to prevent and relieve post-exercise aches and pains, Cara says. “Stretching can also help improve posture and circulation.” Proper rest is also important, the experts say. It’s beneficial to listen to your body, Jacob says. “If your body is telling you to rest or go slow, it is important to listen,” he says. “Make sure you give yourself plenty of time for rest and recuperation after increased periods of exertion.” Proper sleep allows the mind and body to recover from the activity and stress of each day, Betsy says. “Our brain and tissues need uninterrupted sleep to help our memory and ability to learn, to improve our mood and mental wellbeing, to fight off illness or disease and to decrease overall stress,” she says.
Cara says listening to a recent podcast on the benefits of rest and sleep was a revelation for her. “It changed my life in terms of how I prioritize sleep and rest,” she says. “An overtired brain and body makes us vulnerable to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety, obesity, chronic pain and diabetes.”
Staying physically active, recovery and proper rest each has its benefits for the human body. “You must listen to your body,” Tom says. “It will tell you when to slow down and relax. This is how our body heals and prepares for the next round of movement, getting proper rest and nutrition will help the body heal. Mixing it up is just as important as having a routine. Walking versus running, working out in a pool versus on land. All of these have benefits and don’t allow us to get into a rut where we can become burned out from an inflexible routine.”