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.