Exercise for a Healthy Heart and Strong Bones

The value of exercise cannot be overemphasised. Regular exercise reduces the risks of heart disease and, by strengthening bones, can prevent fractures.

It is never too late to start exercising – one study showed that an 80-year-old man gains the same percentage improvement in muscle strength as a 25 year old. Further­more, it is better to start taking exercise when you are older than to have exercised regularly when younger and given it up. It is not just the heart and bones that benefit from regular exercise; muscle strength and power also improve making falls less likely and, if you do trip, you have more strength to hold on to something. Reassess your need for drugs such as tranquillisers, hypnotics or alcohol, all of which affect judgement, making you more likely to trip or stumble.

Although the ideal recom­mendation for exercise is 20 to 30 minutes of brisk activity, three times a week, it need not be as daunting as it sounds. The easiest and most convenient exercise is walking, as it works against gravity and therefore puts greater beneficial stresses on the bones. Start gently and gradually increase the distance. Stretching exercises increase the suppleness of your muscles but have little effect on bone. Swimming is excellent if you have joint problems as it does not put great strain on joints, but getting into a pool of cold water on a winter’s day does require a great deal of motivation!

Exercise as a daily routine

The main reason why people fail to take exercise is simply lack of time so try to incorporate exercise into your daily routine. Walk or cycle to the shops instead of taking the bus or car; if it is too far, then get off the bus one stop earlier, or park your car further away from the shops. Ideally, find a companion to exercise with. If you feel up to more formal exercise, go ahead but it is very important not to overdo it in the early stages as, particularly if you get overtired, you are more likely to give up. Always warm up and cool down gradually to prevent straining muscles and avoid vigorous exercise if you have an infection.

Remember, an exercise pro­gramme should be maintained for life, not just for the next few weeks or months.

Lifestyle changes to prevent heart disease

Many of the risk factors for heart disease can be reduced by simple lifestyle changes:  losing weight, stopping smoking, modifying diet and taking more exercise.

Lifestyle changes to prevent osteoporosis

Again, adequate exercise and a healthy calcium-rich diet help to keep brittle bones at bay. Effective prevention of osteoporosis starts early, however, preferably in child­hood and there is plenty that you can do to protect your children. They need exercise, a good diet, and should be warned about the hazards of smoking.

Peak adult bone mass is reached around the ages of 25 to 40. The peak for men is 25 to 30 per cent greater than for women, placing women at more risk of osteoporosis. Bone loss starts shortly after the peak, starting earlier in women than in men, and is accelerated by the menopause.

What You Can Expect from Exercise

Exercise may enhance bone mass and bone density. To see a good example, compare the arms of your favorite tennis player. You will find that the dominant arm is larger; it has developed more bone and muscle from use. Then think of the astronauts traveling through space with little opportunity to exercise against any resistance in the weight­lessness of space. They lose bone.

Moderate exercise is very beneficial; excess exercise may not be. Let’s look at one more extreme example. Take a woman who is following an overly strenuous exercise program. Let’s say she is a marathon runner. She may lose her menstrual period, because through excessive exercise she has altered ovarian activity and re­duced her body fat so much that her body’s production of estrogen is inhibited. She will then lose bone, as well.

Exercise offers emotional benefit as well as physical energy by alter­ing your state of mood. This alteration probably occurs because exer­cise activates the release of certain hormones within the brain that we call the central endorphins or, brain morphines. They produce that special sense of well-being that we experience after exercise.

Recent studies directed specifically toward menopausal women have shown that vigorous exercise reduces muscle tension and de­creases anxiety significantly. The relief of anxiety is often the result of an increase in the levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine circulat­ing in your blood. These substances improve neurotransmission, or nerve messages. Similar studies have proved that the nature of sleep improves for exercisers and the physically fit.

As we said earlier, a problem with exercise is poor compliance. Women start an exercise program, lose interest, and drop out usually sometime during the first three months of a program. Most studies show that the mood-enhancing results of regular exercise only de­velop strongly after three months, coinciding with when you arrive at a state of physical fitness. Other studies also suggest that good physical exercise, continued late into life, will reduce the aging of your brain and offer you more vigor and consistency of performance into very late old age.

Choosing an exercise activity that is fun for you is as important as getting active, because if it’s not fun you won’t stick with it. Also select a variety of activities, so you are less bored while you enhance your flexibility, strength, and endurance. We know that more women have gotten more active since the 1960s, but we also know that not enough women exercise. Exercise benefits every system in your body, which is probably why it makes you feel so good. There is also a special look to the physically fit woman: a look of strength, confidence, and glowing good health. Her step is lighter, her hand­shake firmer, and her gaze clearer. These are not appearances with­out foundation; they are a direct result of the flexibility, strength, and better oxygenation of the body that a regular and well-defined exercise program begets.

Today’s models and movie stars alike aim for healthy bodies that appear strong and sturdy. A woman with well-built shoulders no longer conveys a masculine image, but rather that of a woman who looks like she can take care of herself. With more women than ever before in the rough-and-tumble work force, and with women living longer than ever before, exercise becomes the path to a very impor­tant degree of strength and self-sufficiency.

Note: It is vitally important before you begin an exercise program to have a complete medical checkup to assure that the program you are about to begin is right for you. Let’s review the broad range of benefits that exercise offers women at midlife and how it may offset some of the problems that hormonal changes can cause.

Many physicians suggest exercise as a treatment for depression. Studies show that exercise aids sleep and can overcome a general feeling of nervousness, both complaints of postmenopausal women. Certain kinds of exercises strengthen bone and aid flexibility so that we do not get hurt as often, or as badly, and we heal faster, too. We know that exercise causes the reproductive system to work better, but that it must be pursued wisely, since perimenopausal women who jog or run excessively can lose their periods entirely and, as a result, lose the bone-building benefits of estrogen.

Goals of the Right Exercise Program

As our bodies age, we can lose aerobic capacity, flexibility, and strength. Studies have shown that calcium and vitamin D are necessary for healthy bone growth, but must be combined with exercise to be fully used by the skeletal system.

As our bodies age, we can lose aerobic capacity, flexibility, and strength. Studies have shown that calcium and vitamin D are necessary for healthy bone growth, but must be combined with exercise to be fully used by the skeletal system. There are appropriate goals for your exercise program that need to be reached through properly selected and executed activities; otherwise your exercise program may not serve your body well and may even be injurious.

Exercise should be incorporated into your lifestyle on a regular basis and should be structured to accomplish these five specific goals.

1. To increase your heart and lung efficiency

2. To increase your muscle strength

3. To increase your muscle tone

4. To increase your muscle endurance

5. To increase your flexibility

Meeting These Exercise Goals

Two kinds of exercise are necessary in order to meet your goals: aerobic exercise and weight-bearing exercise. Aerobic exercise in­creases your oxygen capacity, because it is a way of exercising that demands extra oxygen. It stimulates beneficial changes in the respira­tory and circulatory systems of your body, ultimately making your lungs and your heart work more efficiently, and it is equally important in maintaining your cholesterol and blood lipids at normal levels. Exercise will elevate the HDL cholesterol—the good cholesterol—for most women, and lower the triglycerides. It should also lower the LDL, or bad, cholesterol levels. These changes help cleanse the blood of fats that can block arteries and put you at risk for heart disease.

Aerobic exercise also burns more calories and helps you to reduce body weight and fat. Aerobic exercises include walking, running, jogging, cycling, swimming, cross-country skiing, and dance programs that are designed to use oxygen. The treadmill, the stationary bicycle, the cross-country ski machine, and the stair machine are all capable of helping you get a good aerobic workout when you use them properly, working at 70 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate for at least twenty minutes, three times a week.

Weight-bearing exercises, those loosely defined as activities that work against gravity, are vital to bone health. Women turn to walking, cycling, golfing, playing tennis, and dancing, to name a few activities that make them lift, push, pull, bend, and stretch. Weight lifting, weight training, and body building also help to save, build, and even rebuild bone. Some studies show that weight-bearing exercises and muscle contractions generate stress on the bone that is necessary to prevent bone loss. Other studies have shown that the decrease in bone density in older women may be halted, or even reversed, when women exercise regularly. Today, women are “pumping iron” as never before, using free weights, barbells, and weight disks, or using weight machines such as Nautilus or Universal at health clubs. (It is important that well-trained instructors teach you how to use the equip­ment.)

Choosing Your Exercise Plan

If you are ready to make a lifelong commitment to exercise, begin by choosing aerobic activities that are fun for you and combining them with weight-bearing activities that interest you. Try various activities to see which ones get you moving both physically and psychologically. Then, combine various activities and, to keep your level of interest high, vary the combinations.

For example, you may work out a warm-up, aerobic dance routine, and cool-down exercise program that you do three days a week and alternate it with a weight-lifting routine on the intervening days. Or you may walk vigorously three days a week and cycle two days. However you set up your exercise program, vary it when the least bit of boredom creeps in and try new activities or group activities to stimulate your interest.

How Much Should You Exercise?

It depends on whether you have been exercising regularly or are about to begin. Your level of fitness right now and your medical evaluation determine where you begin. When you begin to exercise, or when you begin a new activity, it is important that you start at a low level of participation and build up very slowly. Soreness or injury that sets you back days, weeks, or months is a greater deterrent to achieving fitness than taking it slowly and steadily, gradually increas­ing the time and the intensity to get to a point of physical fitness sooner. Remember the parable of the tortoise and the hare? Here, too, it is the persevering tortoise that wins.

How Often Should You Exercise?

Plan to exercise four times a week from twenty to forty minutes per session, and try not to slip below three times a week. Remember, you have made a commitment to your own good health and there just has to be time for it. If need be, write your exercise period into your datebook just as you would any other important appointment, and keep it!