Aging Gracefully: Growing Older, Getting Healthier: health article by Elaine Mansfield

I just turned 50 and, despite the inevitable march of time, something wonderful has happened in the last five years. I've grown leaner, stronger and healthier. As I moved into mid-life, I chose to nurture my body rather than accept the negative effects of inadequate self-care. Good exercise and nutrition benefit my health, but they also increase my self-esteem and the pleasure I find in daily living.

Our culture spends massive amounts of energy and money combating the outer signs of aging - buying creams and cosmetics, dyeing away the gray, and suffering through tummy tucks and face lifts. Meanwhile, we passively assume that our aging bodies will become weak and disabled. Fortunately, research shows that many problems associated with aging - osteoporosis, muscle weakness, loss of balance, heart disease, increased blood pressure and diabetes - are not inevitable. These infirmities are usually caused by poor health habits, not age, and we can often prevent them.

It's Never Too Late

The most encouraging news is that making changes when we're 40, 60 or even 80 produces big results. According to the Human Physiology Laboratory at the Tufts University Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, we respond surprisingly well to exercise programs at any age - muscles grow, bone density and metabolism increase, body fat decreases, and blood sugar and balance improve. Reduced muscle strength is the major cause of age-related disability, and the primary cause of muscle weakness is disuse. After only 12 weeks of high-intensity muscle training, healthy males between the ages of 60 and 72 increased knee extensor and flexor strength by 107% and 227%, respectively. These gains were "very similar to those reported for younger subjects after training of similar intensity and duration." It's also encouraging that exercising people feel stronger, more independent, and less burdened by their advancing years.

Any movement helps tremendously, but a program combining aerobic conditioning, strength building, and flexibility is best. Start gradually and gently with something that feels positive and rejuvenating. It's mentally stimulating and physically beneficial to alternate types of exercise on different days. For example, begin with a 15- minute walk three or four days a week, slowly building to 40 minutes. As you increase your time, also increase your pace, but always begin with a 10-minute warm-up, allowing the muscles and lungs to prepare for aerobic work. A cool-down period after exercise protects your heart and muscles from lactic acid build-up.

On alternate days, follow a stretching and strengthening program. Hatha yoga is a form of exercise that increases flexibility and muscle mass. Most health clubs offer classes in strength building, stretching and yoga, and some people keep motivated by exercising with others.

Nutritional Guidelines

Nutritional guidelines for healthy aging are the same as those for prevention of cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease, and diabetes. We need to increase whole, unrefined plant foods in our diet. Our goal is to avoid low-nutrient sugar and fat calories, while increasing nutritionally dense dark green and orange vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Providing adequate nutrients for healthy bones and protection of our cells from free radical damage does require special attention.

Most of us are concerned about prevention of osteoporosis. Exercise is our best insurance policy, but we also need adequate intake of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D. The most healthful sources of calcium and other bone-building minerals are dark leafy greens, especially from cabbage family vegetables or seaweed. Most of the year we can get adequate vitamin D by brief exposure to the sun, but a study at the Calcium and Bone Metabolism Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging found that supplementing women in northern climates with 400 mg of vitamin D in the winter significantly decreased bone loss.

The antioxidant vitamins C and E, and selenium are also much in the news, since they protect and repair our bodies at a cellular level. A diet high in fruits and vegetables has plenty of vitamin C, but vitamin E and selenium are a little trickier. Vitamin E is found in cold-pressed vegetable oils, whole grains, dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and legumes. However, vitamin E breaks down easily with exposure to oxygen, so sources must be fresh. Selenium content of food is dependent on the selenium levels of the soil on which they are grown. Whole grains are good sources if grown on soils with high selenium levels. Other sources of selenium are Brazil nuts, brewer's yeast, garlic, and dark leafy vegetables.

So, if you're middle-aged or older, the clock is forcing you to make choices about your future health. It's both a relief and a responsibility to know that we can personally influence many aspects of our own aging through exercise and nutrition. If we truly value ourselves and our future, we can express this by caring for our health.

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