At some point during their career, most people face the issue of financial planning and how this will affect when they can retire and how they will spend life postretirement. Maybe they hope to travel, spend time with family, or simply do more of the activities and hobbies they just never had the time to do while they were working so hard for many years.
Although many people clearly see the need for financial planning, few realize that the same care and attention is needed for their body, which is also brought into retirement. Midlife years often represent numerous missed opportunities for investment in future health and fitness, characterized by declines in functioning across the body that have a direct effect on the retirement years (1) (Table 1). Although aging is an inevitable process, the degree to which the body experiences such declines is inherently related to the lack of investment in fitness.
Although many people clearly see the need for financial planning, few realize that the same care and attention is needed for their body, which is also brought into retirement. Midlife years often represent numerous missed opportunities for investment in future health and fitness, characterized by declines in functioning across the body that have a direct effect on the retirement years.
Fortunately, all is not lost. Much like individuals plan for their financial future through savings, 401k and IRA accounts, stocks, and mutual funds, physical activity is a potent form of investment for health and fitness. No matter your current age, health, and/or state of retirement preparation, the human body has the incredible potential to favorably respond to the stresses of physical activity and exercise (1). For those in midlife, this includes building your physical “nest egg” and maintaining that through retirement. Others may find themselves already in the retirement years and are looking to “catch up” on physical investments (essentially starting from scratch). Unlike finances, late-life physical investments pay immense dividends by reversing some of the declines attributed to inactivity (3).
Whether or not people realize it, what you do throughout life does have an effect on your physical well-being during the older adult years. The average individual reaches their peak cardiovascular and muscular health between 25 and 35 years old. Exercise elevates your peak fitness profile, ensuring smoother transitions into the older adult years due to mitigating functional “bankruptcy” associated with aging (1,2). Investing in activity during midlife will pay big dividends at retirement.
REINVESTMENT DURING RETIREMENT
So time was fleeting, and now you are in retirement and want to start getting active? Perfect! Now is the time to make those “catch up payments” to your body, acknowledging that we all start at different points. Nevertheless, the big key to investing is to START. Regardless of baseline fitness, the human body has tremendous potential to regain function and health, incorporating lifestyle modifications incrementally (1). In fact, those who are historically inactive have the most to gain from even nominally increasing their activity (1). Reinvestment may come after a major life event (i.e., joint replacement, cardiac event, or extended illness), or the new retiree may simply want to begin the path toward rebuilding a body that has been neglected during the working years.
There are many determinants to maintaining physical activity behavior long term, including personal health, knowledge, socioeconomic status, social support, and the environment around us. Provided this complexity, it makes logical sense that an investment portfolio be established that acknowledges barriers yet also promotes the physical investment to be well rounded and enable choice/personal preference. We can call this a “diverse fitness investment portfolio” and will separate this based on the level of exertion of activities.
There are many determinants to maintaining physical activity behavior long term, including personal health, knowledge, socioeconomic status, social support, and the environment around us. Provided this complexity, it makes logical sense that an investment portfolio be established that acknowledges barriers yet also promotes the physical investment to be well rounded and enable choice/personal preference. We can call this a “diverse fitness investment portfolio.”
THE CONSERVATIVE INVESTMENT PORTFOLIO (A PLACE TO BEGIN)
For those with limited physical capacity, who have been far removed from regular activity, or are looking to ease into a more active lifestyle, they may be wondering what is appropriate. Contrary to the perception that exercise only occurs in a structured fitness center, the opportunities for physical activity are all around us. Despite the possibilities to incorporate movement, overall physical activity levels have been plummeting, as illustrated by Peterman and Bassett in “Houston, We Have a (Physical Activity) Problem.” For many individuals, increasing activity levels can begin in/around the house. As an example, this could include using the less-automated option for chores: using a push lawn mower versus a riding mower, washing dishes by hand instead of the dishwasher, walking while grocery shopping instead of ordering groceries to be delivered, or even walking an extra flight of stairs when doing laundry. All these activities impose an elevated workload on the cardiovascular system and skeletal muscles that get neglected due to physical activity being engineered out of our lifestyles — so keep the body moving. At this level of “investment,” reflect on the activities that you enjoy; you are more likely to do it for the long term — which is important. You might be surprised how much activity you can fit in throughout the day by making a few modifications to your schedule or routine, and all those little changes contribute to being a more active and healthy version of yourself (4).
“For those with limited physical capacity, have been far removed from regular activity, or are looking to ease into a more active lifestyle, they may be wondering what is appropriate. Contrary to the perception that exercise only occurs in a structured fitness center, the opportunities for physical activity are all around us.”
In addition to finding small ways to incorporate physical activity throughout the day, one may consider a formal walking program. Walking has a plethora of benefits and is ideal for those who are just starting a new routine or have health issues to consider. Although considered a low-impact movement, walking aids in strengthening hip/lower limb muscles, maintaining bone density and cardiac strength, and promotes healthy blood vessels (5). Walking is a free activity and can be modifiable to be made more/less difficult, offering the indirect benefit of keeping your confidence up into the elder years that you are still able to navigate your surroundings. For an added bonus, find a walking buddy. Friends, family, and pets make great walking partners that make you more likely to keep up with it. Aim for 10 minutes of walking, gradually progressing the time and pace (as tolerated) to a total of 10,000 steps per day. Weather permitting, walking is a fantastic way to explore and appreciate our environments, whether that is on a trail, a beach, or the neighborhood. As you begin to make walking a formal part of an exercise program, consider the importance of warming up before and cooling down after exercise. A proper warm-up will prime your body for the exercise to come by redirecting blood to the working muscles and increase your cardiorespiratory responses, with the cool-down serving as a way to enhance recovery by recirculating hormones and metabolic substrates and gradually bring your body back to homeostasis. A warm-up/cool-down for walking could consist of a less strenuous walking pace, or even some light stretching.
Stretching is effective in minimizing the risk of musculoskeletal injuries across the life span, increasing range of motion, and preserving mobility. Often neglected, stretching is important for maintaining range of motion for all muscle groups, spanning both the upper body and the lower body. Depending on body size and/or flexibility, various stretches can be modified to reduce the chance for falling and/or injury. For example, sitting and reaching for the toes on an extended leg is targeting the hamstrings and reduces balance-related fall risk when performing the stretch. Incorporating upper body stretches also can be done with something to hold on to for balance purposes, such as a chair or next to a wall. A more active form of stretching that is useful across the life span is yoga. Yoga incorporates various movements to strengthen muscles and improve range of motion. Particular to older adults, yoga helps improve balance and reduce fall risks. You can refer to the previous article written by Ferguso-Stegall and Robb for more information on yoga and its benefits. Stretching on at least 2 days per week for 10 minutes can help some of the main decrements in flexibility associated with aging (i.e., shoulder and hip) that are tied to activities of daily living. The National Institute on Aging’s Go4Life (https://go4life.nia.nih.gov/) and the National Council on Aging’s Healthy Living programs (https://www.ncoa.org/healthy-aging/) provide further programming for older adults to enhance/preserve flexibility, balance, and overall fitness.
Dance: A Mutual Fund of Movement, Body Awareness, Social Interaction, and Conditioning
When investing in the body, sometimes it’s a good idea to find an activity that covers a diverse array of physical, mental, and social benefits in one activity. By engaging the whole body in movement, dance links the brain-body connection and intervenes on the spectrum of wellness, including emotional and social health. For example, the dancer must listen to the musical beat, execute prearranged movements with a partner, and navigate other dancers. Thus, proprioception (partner contact), cognition, managing sensory inputs, and decision making are all integrated together. Not all forms of dance are the same, in the similar manner that not all people have the ability to manage the multifaceted dimensions of dance (6,7). Line dancing, as an example, can be done independently with prearranged movements and enable the dancer to learn new movements without worrying about dance traffic. Chair dance is another example of modified dance that can be done from an activity-permissible chair and appropriate for rhythmic dances like salsa and bachata.
Dance involves multiple contact points between partners. Compression and tension in the arms and hands help the dance leader guide the follower, and the leader must make adjustments in body position, center of gravity, and foot placement to complete the movements. Dance provides challenges to touch and proprioception, which are important senses to develop for fall prevention (6). As the trainer, you could start the beginner with some simple exercises in tension and compression to help learn body connection. These skills can translate to the frail for simple movements like transitioning from chair to standing or moving. As the dancer adapts, you could progress to turns or a short sequence of steps to music, which adds sensory challenges.
Social connection is an important variable during the retirement years. We lose our job-related social environment and sometimes have difficulties establishing new connections. By nature, dance is a social activity and draws people together to enjoy music, movement, and a healthy social means of communication. Exercise adherence is greater with dance compared with traditional forms of exercise, so it seems to be a more stable investment for the body.
Dance is a pulsatile, weight-supported activity that strengthens bones and muscles for balance, as well as gait length and gait quality (6). Awareness of center of gravity helps maintain base of support when challenged by uneven terrain or slippery surfaces. Accordingly, dance improves mobility and preserves balance, but it also burns calories (an average of about 5 kcal/minute). For a 2-hour dance party, that could be as much as 500 kcal expended. Accordingly, the more you dance, the greater the cardiovascular benefits you receive (7).
Optimizing muscular strength is an important part of maintaining physical fitness through life. Other than enabling you to continue to perform activities you enjoy, muscular fitness also helps maintain balance, prevents falls, and affords you the ability to engage in more strenuous activities (8). This is accomplished by resistance training, which also works to strengthen bone health. Depending on your muscular strength, the degree of exertion to begin with, in tandem with progression, is highly variable. Ideally, resistance training should occur on 2 to 3 nonconsecutive days, with 8 to 12 repetitions for all major muscle groups. Performing more repetitions aims to enhance muscular endurance; however, if strength/power is the goal, lower repetitions (with higher resistance) are required. The misconception, though, is that this all needs to occur within a gym and with expensive exercise equipment. This is not the case. For beginners, body weight exercises such as pushups, squats, and sit-ups are great ways to build up your body. If body weight movements are too difficult, try using resistance bands, which enable the user to modify the resistance while ensuring safety, or even using a chair/wall to make the exercise easier (i.e., performing a push-up while standing against a wall or squatting while holding onto a chair). Elderly and frail individuals can even use items found within the home to use during certain movements. For example, soup cans or water bottles can be used for bicep curls, and stairs can be used for step-up movements.
One area of fitness that has been receiving more attention for deconditioned, older adults and/or those with chronic diseases is high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Broadly, HIIT involves alternating brief (<45 to 240 seconds) vigorous-intensity exercise bouts with longer (60 to 360 seconds) light- to moderate-intensity bouts. Previously, HIIT training was considered primarily for young, healthy, athletic populations; yet this type of training is showing fantastic results in high-risk populations (9). Every 2 weeks, try gradually increasing the time spent in vigorous exertion and decreasing low/moderate exertion. Thereafter, you can work at progressively adding more time to each exercise session. Given that our fitness may fluctuate across time, it is important to remember that intensity is relative to our physical capacity. What is considered a moderate-intensity activity for a 20-year-old college student could very well be a highly intense activity for a new retiree. Accordingly, HIIT could entail rotating through exercise circuits, or alternating your pace as you walk through the neighborhood. An additional example could be incorporating low-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., walking) for an active-rest period in between resistance training sets. This will increase the overall volume of work done during an exercise session. Evidence suggests that this type of training, in addition to continuous high-intensity training, improves cardiometabolic outcomes, functional capacity, and self-confidence and reduces boredom/monotony (8,10). For additional insight into HIIT, refer to the article “Effective Strategies to Increase Physical Activity in the Working Years” by Ferguso-Stegall and Robb.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Invest in yourself through physical activity to maximize health and to ensure your functioning lasts well into your retirement years. Health and fitness can be enhanced through leisure activities and does not necessarily have to consist of formal exercise movements. The more you are able to exert yourself, the more benefits you will carry with you into the “golden years.” Be diverse in the investment because aging can affect a variety of physiological systems of the body.
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