Before exercising or stretching, it is really important to warm up. Cold or “unprepared” muscles are muscles that are prone to injury. This is especially true after we have turned 50. For many of us, our muscles, tendons and ligaments have tightened or stiffened with age. Jumping directly into an aerobic activity, weight-training, or even stretching without warming up can lead to sprains, tears or other unnecessary muscle, ligament or tendon damage. Also, after 50, it is a good idea to gradually raise our heart rate before any exercise.
Ever hear of people who drop dead while shoveling snow? One factor contributing to these sudden deaths is strenuous exercise in the cold without gradually raising one’s heart rate beforehand. Cold causes our blood vessels to constrict. That means our hearts have to work harder to provide blood to our muscles. If we have any kind of underlying heart problem–and a good percentage of us do by the time we are in our 50’s–then sudden vigorous activity in the cold can put an unnecessary strain on our hearts. Warming up beforehand gives our hearts a chance to catch up, so to speak.
Warming up consists of any slow and sustained movement that gradually increases the blood flow throughout your body and gently raises your heart rate; it prepares your muscles for more sustained and vigorous activity. You should plan to spend about 5 to 10 minutes with your warm up. My favorite is to walk slowly, gradually increasing the speed with which I walk. Another favorite is to turn all limbs and joints one at a time (for example, starting with my ankles, then moving up to my hips, back, hands, arms and neck) in clockwise and counterclockwise circles. Another easy warm up is to slowly march in place and gradually increase the height and speed with which you raise your knees.
Cooling down is the mirror image of warming up. Just as it is important to prepare your muscles for more active movement, and to slowly increase your heart rate prior to exercise, it is important to slowly lower your heart rate following exercise. To cool down, simply gradually lower the intensity of your exercise until you can breathe easily and talk normally.
So warm up and cool down: it’s easy and well worth the time and effort.