Use it or lose it. As my wife and I ease into the back half of our 50’s, our house has gradually transformed into a gymnasium. It seems like every spare corner and surface holds exercise or physical therapy equipment now.
I’ve been into fitness since college, never letting myself get seriously out of shape. But, with an injury this past winter, I was reminded that you can’t afford to let your physical condition go, as you age. Don’t take mobility for granted. Unused joints stiffen; neglected muscles atrophy. You’ve got to keep moving from head to toe, injuries notwithstanding. If you don’t, you may never get it back….
And, while going to a gym might be good motivation for some, you don’t need an expensive gym membership to stay in shape. With today’s fitness products and a bit of commitment, you can stay in peak condition from the comfort of your own home.
Given the rising cost of health care, as witnessed in our own retirement, there might be no other single variable where you can have as much impact on your retired cost of living, as your personal health. Simply put, you can save thousands yearly by keeping yourself in the best possible physical condition.
So, everybody needs to exercise, but we all have different strengths, weaknesses, and health history. Your specific needs could be quite different from others. Depending on your particular physical condition, certain motions may not come easily. Fortunately, when it comes to fitness, the last few decades have seen an explosion of information, techniques, and exercise devices to choose from.
I have a lifetime of experience training for various outdoor sports, but I’m not a personal trainer, or physical therapist. So I wouldn’t presume to recommend what’s best for anybody else in this department. But I spent a good part of the spring testing new exercise routines and devices. Below, I’ll share some key ideas that may serve as helpful jumping off points for your own lifestyle. And I’ll report on my favorite new exercise equipment, with an emphasis on economy and portability….
At some point early in college I took a PE class in gymnastics. The instructor was a big proponent of stretching, and from him I acquired a personal 5-minute stretch routine. It’s a combination of traditional sports stretches, and some yoga poses, that is still with me today. I start every morning and end most evenings with it. And, I often do it during the day, as an antidote to sitting at the computer.
Fifteen years ago, influenced by my wife, I also began dabbling in yoga. While she has gone on to more dedicated study, I have remained a dabbler. I never wanted to take time from my daily routine to attend classes, so most of my yoga “instruction” has been in the form of DVDs. For years, several 20-minute “Power Yoga” routines were my daily staple.
But I’ve recently had to dial back that intensity and adopt some milder, restorative yoga routines instead. When searching for new yoga videos, I settled on a couple of smartphone apps: They are cheap and easy to download and they let me do a short yoga routine whether I’m home or traveling, without needing access to a computer or TV. My current favorites are Simply Yoga (Android, Apple) and Yoga Studio (Android, Apple). Both feature simple, customizable routines and clear instruction.
Aerobic and Core
Aerobic exercise for cardiovascular health is fundamental. The traditional choices are walking, running, bicycling, or swimming. The choice is largely a matter of personal preference and circumstances.
Life being unpredictable, it’s best to have several options. Low-impact bicycling has been my main aerobic conditioning for many years. Extensive walking or running have been difficult due to joint issues. Swimming is my fallback position. But, personally, I won’t exercise regularly in a pool, unless I have run out of other choices.
For core strength, I’ve been doing sit-ups and crunches for many years. Lately I’ve added squats and lunges to improve essential leg strength. These basic exercises require no equipment, and can be performed almost anywhere in just a few minutes time. For the complete low-down on squats, see what my friend Dr. B has to say on the topic at Aging with Pizzazz.
If you want to go beyond basic stretching, aerobic, and core strength the traditional answer has been weight training of some sort. I’ve experimented with free weights off and on many times over the years. Barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells. The story was always the same: I would give up after a few months, frustrated at the effort to set up and manage a workout. Often, too, I’d be nursing an injury, from a moment of carelessness.
Bodyblade — But this spring I discovered the Bodyblade. It’s been a game changer for me. The Bodyblade offers many of the benefits of weight training, but is radically different. Often used in physical therapy, it’s a thin fiberglass wand that weighs only a few pounds. Because it has no resistance when not in motion, it’s perfectly safe to hold at rest and is very unlikely to strain muscles. You can pick it up any time and do a highly-effective workout in less than 15 minutes. There are no moving parts and no weights to adjust. The secret is in the vibrating momentum of the device: Your body must brace against the force in multiple directions, recruiting and training many muscles simultaneously. That it requires a bit of coordination to use, makes the workouts more engaging. After a few weeks, the results are obvious. I expect to stick with the Bodyblade for the long haul. It is the most expensive of the devices I’ll be discussing in this article, but I think it’s worth every cent for the easy and effective workout it offers.
TRX — The TRX was invented by a Navy SEAL as a compact device for maintaining fitness while deployed. Its flexibility and portability have spawned a profusion of exercises and exercise routines, available for free on YouTube. The TRX is a relatively simple strap system that uses a single overhead anchor point to allow exercising against your bodyweight. It usually comes with a soft, removable plug so you can anchor it behind a door (vehicle doors work too, if you’re traveling). Or you can buy add-ons to create a more secure fixed anchor point high on a wall or ceiling. I use the door anchor (be sure the door is doubly locked and/or opening in the other direction).
In my view, the TRX is optimal for upper-body workouts. You can simulate many free weight exercises such as presses, curls, and flies. But there are plenty of lower-body routines available as well, especially if you can use an overhead anchoring point.
The TRX is the original product in this genre, and I usually prefer to support the original inventor. However the brand name is several times the cost of some competitors. So, on the recommendation of my physical therapist, and because I wasn’t sure if the system was one I’d keep using or not, I went with one of the imitators — the G-STRAP. It’s about one-third the cost. I have been perfectly happy with it. And it now forms a regular part of my weekly exercise routine.
Loop Resistance Bands — With my upper-body routine in place, I needed a better solution for building leg strength, and found it in loop resistance bands. It’s hard to imagine a cheaper, simpler exercise device than these giant rubber bands, distributed in a tiny stuff sack with five different color-coded resistance levels. Yet they are an incredibly efficient, effective, and portable exercise system.
There are dozens and dozens of exercises, upper- and lower-body, described in the 41-page e-book that comes with the product. Because these are loops, the exercises are generally simple and self-contained: You are anchoring one side of the loop with one part of your body, while stretching the opposite side. I tested a more expensive and complicated set of bands — straight segments anchored with clips, but the simple Loop Resistance Bands were much faster to set up, and actually allow for more lower-body exercises.
So that’s my current take on simple, cheap, portable ways to stay fit in your 50’s, 60’s, and beyond. I know that committing to regular exercise has made my retirement years healthier and happier. And I hope you found a few good ideas above for your own exercise program, whatever it may be.
Everybody needs to develop their own personal routine — the type and intensity of exercises right for them. For another perspective on fitness in your retirement years, from seasoned weight trainer and blog reader Russ, see Staying Healthy over at HappyIRetired. It’s full of great advice on how to adapt a serious fitness commitment to an aging body.
To enjoy mental and physical health and make the most of your retirement years, stay as fit as possible. Some will be content with a more relaxed approach, while others will try to maintain an athletic performance level into their later years. There isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way, as long as you keep moving!
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