Eating Well and Keeping Fit

Winter 2004 CSANews Issue 53  |  Posted date : May 16, 2007.Back to list

As much as new medical procedures and pharmaceuticals have done in modern times to improve and prolong our lives, there is increasing scientific proof that proper food and exercise are equally important in contributing to these opportunities. Yet as eager as we are to get the angioplasty which we need for a blocked artery, a pin for a fractured hip and a pill for our rising cholesterol, most of us are delinquent when it comes to diligent efforts in our diet and our daily physical activity to reduce the risk for these events in the first place. But it is never too late to start. Improving your dietary habits and level of daily activity are the two most important things you can do to maintain your physical and mental well-being and quality of life as you get older.

Recent advances in nutritional research have been abundant and prove a definite link between proper eating habits and health status. A healthy diet has been shown to increase mental acuity, increase resistance to illness, provide higher energy levels and improve one's immune response. Specific dietary changes can reduce the risk of many conditions including, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease and osteoporosis.

Special attention in our senior years must be paid to proper intake of calcium and Vitamin D for bone health, increased intake of fibre to reduce the risk of constipation, adequate intake of fluids, especially water, and reduced intake of saturated fats, salt and sugars. In addition to calcium from dietary sources such as low-fat dairy products, broccoli, and fortified juices, cereals and cereal bars, it is generally recommended that seniors take an additional 1,000 mg of calcium and 400 I.U. (International Units) of vitamin D per day.

For those with concern for arteriosclerosis and heart disease, the reduction of saturated fats as found in butter, eggs, meats and whole milk is essential, as well as increasing your intake of "good fats" such as omega-3 fatty acids as found in fish. The American Heart Association recommends that we should all eat (preferably fatty) fish at least twice a week. For many snowbirds who have ready access to fresh ocean fish, this is easily achievable. We should also include oils such as flaxseed, canola and soybean, as well as walnuts in our diet.

For those with high blood pressure or ankle swelling, the use of salt should be restricted. Get rid of the shaker on your table, use little or no added salt in your cooking and use other seasonings to flavour your food.

It is well known that whole grains are better for us. Rather than eating white bread, sugary cereals, pasta and white rice, we should be consuming whole grains as found in whole wheat bread, multigrain bread, brown rice and whole oats.

And for many seniors who are in need of weight reduction, the most important dietary advice relates to their caloric intake, along with increased exercise. Changing the type of foods which they are eating, reducing consumption and burning off more calories through a dedicated fitness program will help to prevent or control an array of conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease.

Fruits are high in Vitamin C and other nutrients. Blackberries, strawberries, black currents, citrus and kiwi fruit, cantaloupe and peaches are all beneficial.

Our vegetable choices for good health should include those high in Vitamin A and Vitamin C, such as carrots, squash, tomatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, onions and avocados.

I awoke as usual at about 7 a.m. today, put on my shorts and running shoes, went to the den and stared at my stationary bike. I didn't feel like exercising this morning. I've never been very keen on exercise equipment. But it's cold outside in Toronto, the traffic's bad and, as a senior physician, I'm acutely aware of the health benefits of daily exercise, so I turn on the morning TV news and start my 30-minute "workout" on my bike.

Snowbirds enjoy the privilege of having access to daily outside activity all year round. Yet statistics show that the majority of us in the senior age group do not pay attention to the array of health benefits derived from a daily period of physical activity. We use the remote to change channels, elevators to ascend one or two floors, park nearest the door of the grocery store and rarely include a specific exercise schedule in our daily routine. While living in a gated condominium complex in Fort Lauderdale for many winters, wherein the vast majority of the 1,000 or so residents were seniors, I was amazed at how few were regular walkers or regular users of the tennis courts, pool and gymnasium equipment.

But there is a resurgence of attention to exercise, especially for seniors. Our generation has become too sedentary and increased illness and injury are the unfortunate consequences for many. At an age at which increased physical activity is essential, people have in general become less physically active as they get older. It is estimated that nearly 40 per cent of people over the age of 55 report no leisure-time physical activity.

The health benefits of regular exercise are plentiful. Studies have proved that bone loss is reduced (diminishing the risk of fractures), less loss of muscle mass results and generally, co-ordination, balance and muscle strength improve. As one gets older, being physically active is paramount in maintaining quality of life and independence. But in addition, there are many specific afflictions of aging, which can be prevented or more adequately controlled.

The risk of heart disease is reduced as exercise improves circulation throughout the body. High blood pressure is prevented or more favourably controlled, cholesterol levels are improved and persons who exercise generally feel better, experience less tension and stress and have an improved self-image. Along with appropriate dietary intake, weight control or reduction is more easily achieved.

At the CSA winter shows, I can often predict whether or not the attendee stopping by for a blood pressure check is one who exercises regularly. His or her blood pressure is more commonly normal, the pulse lower, there is less obesity and a generally brighter attitude prevails. Controlling weight gain as we age is a constant challenge and regular aerobic exercise allows us to more easily maintain optimal weight.

So how can we exercise most effectively? The first step is to make the commitment to incorporate exercise into your daily routine. This is most likely achievable if you partake in activity that is enjoyable and if possible, with your spouse or a friend. Walking at a brisk but comfortable pace for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week is probably the simplest, most suitable and enjoyable activity. Snowbirds have the wonderful opportunity of pursuing this goal 12 months of the year. While in the sunny climates during the winter, a walk in the condominium complex, the beach, the park or even along residential streets is simply accomplished.

If a recreation area is available, swimming, exercise equipment, cycling and dancing are beneficial in improving your physical condition. For those with osteoporosis and arthritis, exercise is even more important. Limitations due to physical disability may make the challenge greater, but there are many suitable programs available. For example, aqua fitness programs, T'ai Chi, home stretching routines, and specialty classes for people with arthritis can be tailored to suit your challange.

Begin your program slowly and build your physical activity into your daily routine. Keep active whenever the opportunity presents itself. Garden if you can, take the stairs, do your own yard work, and walk to the store rather than drive. Choose things you enjoy doing with people whom you like.

For those with medical conditions, consult your physician about any strenuous forms of exercise. In general, however, remember that physical activity is one of the most important things you can do to maintain and improve the status of your physical and mental health and quality of life. Adapting a regular program suitable to your age and abilities and committing to a daily routine will improve your health and maintain your independence.

Remember, these two factors which you can control, a healthy diet and regular exercise, can be as important as any pill and any doctor in reducing health risks at any age, and more so in your retirement years.