Attitude Makes a Big Difference

According to the American Heart Association, more than 2,200 Americans die each day from cardiovascular disease. That’s an average of one death every 39 seconds. Stroke accounts for about one out of every 18 deaths in the U.S.

A recent Harvard School of Public Health press release notes that numerous studies over the past few decades have shown that negative states of mind such as depression, anger, anxiety and hostility are detrimental to cardiovascular health. Less has been known about how positive mental attitudes and psychological characteristics are related to heart health.

Now, however, in the first and largest systematic review on this topic to date, researchers at Harvard School of Public Health have found that “positive psychological well-being appears to reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular events.” The study was published online in Psychological Bulletin on April 17, 2012.

“The absence of the negative is not the same thing as the presence of the positive,” said Julia Boehm, lead author and research fellow in the Department of Society, Human Development and Health at Harvard School of Public Health. “We found that factors such as optimism, life satisfaction and happiness are associated with reduced risk of CVD regardless of such factors as a person’s age, socioeconomic status, smoking status, or body weight. For example, the most optimistic individuals had an approximately 50% reduced risk of experiencing an initial cardiovascular event compared to their less optimistic peers.”

Being positive and optimistic when facing the adversity of chronic or rapid onset illness or just the relentless progression of the aging process can be difficult if not impossible without some form of outside help. Yet the benefits in terms of improved heart health and increased chances of longevity make the effort worthwhile.

The story is told of a young woman who was complaining to her father about how difficult her life had become. The father took his daughter into the kitchen, put three pans of water on the stove and heated them to boiling. Into one of the pans he added carrots; to another pan he added eggs; to the third pan he added ground coffee. After all three had cooked, he put their contents into three separate bowls and asked his daughter to cut into the carrots and the eggs and to smell the coffee. “What does this all mean?” the daughter asked.

“Each food,” he said, “teaches us something about facing adversity, which is represented by the boiling water. The carrots went in hard but came out soft and weak. The eggs went in fragile but came out hardened. The coffee, however, changed the boiling water into something better.”

“Which will you be like as you face life?” the father asked. “Will you give up and become soft and weak, or will you become hardened? Or will you transform adversity into triumph? As the ‘chef’ of your own life, what will you bring to the table for others to see?”

If you are having difficulty transforming the adversity in your life into triumph, Fine After 50 can help. We specialize in helping people of any age who have experienced or are experiencing chronic or rapid onset illness or other physical or emotional challenges in their lives.

Would you like to overcome negative thoughts and feelings about what’s happening in your life? Would you like to learn how to accept the changes that are taking place in your body, manage your expectations, define a new “normal,” and look forward to the future with optimism and joy? If so, check out our Services page to get more information about what we offer and how you will benefit from working with us. We CAN help you get through the difficulties you are experiencing.

Fit After 50: Wake Up Sleeping Abs!

Note: Remember to check with your health care practitioner before trying out any of the suggestions in this blog.

As I have shared in previous posts, I am uncoordinated: always have been and most likely will continue to be. I lack something called “body awareness.” Example: were you to ask me to clench my stomach muscles, I would clench something in an attempt to meet your request but there is a really good chance it would be my neck, butt, or other compensating area. If I were to do regular crunches with this level of unawareness, I would most likely pull up from my neck and shoulders. In my case, I am compensating with other muscles because I really do not know how to target my abs.

Ever do regular crunches and afterwards have a sore neck? You might have more body awareness than I do but guess who is compensating, too!

The real issue with compensating is that you not only are exercising ineffectively, you are leaving yourself open to injury. So, for those of you who, like me, can’t find your abs even with GPS–take heart. It is possible to do crunches without wrenching your neck or hurting your lower back. You just need to do a few remedial moves beforehand.

Begin by waking up the muscles you cannot easily target. For those of you who are abs-unaware, take your fingers and gently press them against your stomach about an inch above your belly button. Clench your abs–you will know when you are successful when you can actually feel the muscles underneath contracting. Check to see if you are also clenching anything else–the goal is to isolate and clench only your abs. Check your butt, lower back, neck, shoulders. If possible, do this in front of a mirror and see if anything else is moving. Nothing else should be moving. Relax all of the other muscles you might be using and try again.

The goal is to be able to do two sets of ten contractions targeting only your abs. When you can do that, then you are worthy of continuing on your journey toward regular crunches.

To be continued…

Fit After 50: Improve Your Strength

Note: Please check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program that involves working with weights or resistance machines. And remember, it is always important to warm up before working with weights and cool down afterwards.

Strength training can involve going to a gym and working out with weights — but it doesn’t have to. There are strength-building exercises that you can do in your own home using the weight of your own body.

In future blog articles and in a future e-book, we will talk about weight training for the purpose of building muscle mass and weight training for the purpose of increasing endurance. We’ll also discuss the differences between using free weights and using range-of-motion resistance machines. For now, however, lets talk about some strength training you can do at home at your own convenience.

There are three areas of your body that you can easily exercise and strengthen at home without using external weights: legs, arms and shoulders, and core — which is your pelvic region, including your stomach and lower back.

Let’s talk about your legs first. You may not realize it, but every time you squat down to sit on the toilet, you are exercising your leg muscles. Why not do five or six squats to the top of the toilet seat each time you need to sit down to take care of business? Or, if the urgency is too great, do the squats AFTER you’ve taken care of business. Gradually work up to ten repetitions.

Of course, you don’t need to do this exercise in the bathroom. You can do it anywhere, at any time. A couple of sets of ten repetitions every day will do wonders for your leg muscles. When you do these knee-bends or squats, make sure you don’t squat too far. One reason for doing them over the toilet seat in the bathroom is to prevent you from squatting too far and damaging your knees.

If you have stairs in your home, another way you can strengthen your legs and hips is to walk up and down the stairs several times a day. Keep your back straight and don’t “pound” your feet on the steps; try to walk lightly, landing on the ball of your foot and springing upward. This will strengthen your calf muscles. Stop immediately if you start to feel dizzy or light-headed.

Now let’s talk about arms and shoulders. There are many different arm motions you can do from either a standing or sitting position that will strengthen your shoulders and upper arms. With your arms at your sides, your hands open, and your thumbs pointing in the direction you are going to move your arms, first raise your arms slowly until they are fully extended above your head; then lower slowly. Repeat ten times. Next, point your thumbs at a 45-degree angle away from your body and raise both arms to a Y-shaped position. Lower slowly and repeat ten times. Finally, turn your hands so that your palms are facing forward and your thumbs are pointing away from your body. Slowly raise your arms sideways to a horizontal position, hold for a count of three, and lower slowly. Repeat that movement ten times also. You’ve just given your arms and shoulders a good workout. Be sure not to “hunch” your shoulders while you are doing these movements.

If you’ve read any articles about fitness in recent years, you’ve undoubtedly read something about the importance of strengthening your “core” — the middle part of your body that includes your stomach and lower back. My favorite at-home core exercise is to lay on my back on the floor and raise my head and upper back off of the floor by tightening my stomach muscles. You will begin to feel soreness in your stomach muscles after just a few repetitions of these movements called “crunches.”

Tina cringed when I mentioned this exercise to her because she has neck problems; she can’t do floor crunches without damaging her neck. So if you have neck problems, or if you can’t lift your head and upper back without pulling forward with your neck, try a different exercise. Lay or your back with your feet together and your hands on the floor next to your body. Keeping your legs straight and your feet touching each other, try to lift your feet and legs off of the floor to a height of two inches or less. Hold the position for a count of five if you can, then slowly lower your heels to the floor and rest. Repeat this up to ten times. As your stomach muscles get stronger over time, try spreading your legs apart and bringing them back together while your heels are two inches above the floor. If you do this exercise consistently, you will eventually be able to spread your legs apart, hold them apart for a count of five, bring them back together, spread them apart again — up to five times — before lowering your heels to the floor.

There are several other good core-strengthening exercises that you can do at home on your living room floor. You can pick up some good ideas here. For even more education about core muscles and exercises, click here.

Have fun with these at-home exercises and improve your strength!

Fit After 50: Stretching: Improve Your Flexibility

NOTE: Once again, be sure to check with your doctor or health care practitioner before testing out any of our suggestions or starting a new exercise program.

As if it is not enough that our skin gets saggy and wrinkled and that our hair turns gray, our muscles and our tendons tend to get tighter as we age, too. Now here we open up a delightfully complicated topic: tight muscles versus over-toned or hypertonic muscles. When I refer to “tight” muscles, I am referring to muscles that have shortened from either lack of use or wrong use (like tight hamstrings from sitting too long or tight shoulder muscles from hunching over a computer keyboard). Hypertonic muscles are muscles that are receiving too many nerve impulses so that the muscles are contracting more than they should and so becoming tight. In this particular article, I am referring to tight muscles from misuse or lack of use. All other issues should be dealt with by your local physical therapist. Trust me on this: after 50, it is very handy to have a PT as your BFF.

Things to keep in mind, though, before you begin:

  • Everyone’s level of flexibility is different. Don’t force any move.
  • Warm up before you stretch. Once again, a warm muscle is less likely to be injured by activity, even stretching. Stretching does not replace warm up activities.
  • Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds before moving to the next one.
  • Never bounce. Stretches should be held. Bouncing causes tight muscles and tendons to tear.
  • Learn the difference between the discomfort of a good stretch and the pain of a bad one. NEVER stretch to the point of pain; it is counterproductive.

Most of the people I know need to stretch their necks, shoulders, hips and hamstrings. There are many different kinds of stretches; here are just a few of the simple ones that I use. If you have favorite ones, we would love to hear about them. Once again, if you have any musculoskeletal problems, please see a physical therapist for stretches and exercises targeted for your specific issues.

Neck stretch: Turn your head as far as you can to the left and hold for 30 seconds, and then repeat turning your head to the right. Then tilt your head so that your left ear moves toward your left shoulder and hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on the right side.

Shoulder stretch: Standing in front of a wall, walk your fingers up the wall as far as you can and then hold for 30 seconds.

Hip Stretch: Sitting on a chair, put your right ankle on the top of your left knee and gently bend forward until you feel the “pull.” Hold for 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side. (Note: Phil just tried this and almost wiped out his knee. If you have knee problems, or if you are not very flexible, this stretch is not for you.)

Hamstrings: Standing in front of a staircase or a small stool, put your right heel on one of the stairs or on the stool. Keeping your back perfectly straight and your knee unlocked, bend forward from the hips until you feel the “pull.” Hold for 30 seconds and then repeat on the opposite side.

Fit After 50: Aerobics–Work Within Your Zone

Note: Please check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program or adopting any of the suggestions included below. And remember, it is always important to warm up before and cool down after aerobic exercise.

You know how there are moments that are burned into the cells of your brain forever? One of mine is when I attended my first ever aerobics class. It was led by a German woman named Helga (I kid you not) and I lasted seven minutes. I literally crawled out of the room on my hands and knees and dry-heaved in the hallway. Can you spell “humiliation”? It was years before I was brave enough to consider aerobics again. So, if you have the same kind of unconscious resistance to aerobics, I totally understand. Unfortunately, after 50, we need to move.

About 10 years ago, I attended an anatomy seminar led by a medical pathologist. When he started discussing the anatomy of the heart, he digressed into a mini-lecture on aerobics. He basically said that because the heart is a muscle, exercise impacts it but not as much as you would think. While the pumping capacity of your heart might improve, the real benefit from aerobic exercise is that it trains the voluntary muscles in your body to use oxygen more efficiently–during exercise and at rest. The result is less overall burden on your cardiovascular system and from his perspective, that was a good thing.

Aerobic activity is *any* sustained movement that causes your body to require more oxygen than normal. Effective aerobic exercise is that which keeps your heart rate at 65% to 80% of its maximum rate for a period of no less than 15 minutes. If you are not very fit, slow walking can be aerobic. If you are very fit, you might have to run or bike to reach your target heart rate. The important thing to remember is stay within your target heart rate.

You determine your target heart rate using the following formula: First subtract your age from 220, then multiple that number by .65.

For example, if you are 50 years old:

220 – 50 = 170. 170 x .65 = 110. Your target heart rate would be 110.

Click here for Heart.com’s information on target heart rates.

Fit After 50: Walk Your Way to a Longer Life

Several medical studies have shown that people who walk regularly live longer, and that walking regularly can prevent hip fractures, keep you flexible, help you sleep better and keep your mind clearer as you age. In a DiscoveryNews article, Seth Landefeld, director of the Mt. Zion Center on Aging at the University of California at San Francisco, said, “There is a lot of evidence that people who keep up physical activity as well as social activity do much better in all sorts of ways. They live longer. They have better health. Their mental health stays sharper…. If you keep walking and moving around, that will likely have benefits in terms of survival and overall health.”

Unless you are confined to a wheel chair or have a heart condition that prevents mild exercise, walking is something you can do. And you know intuitively that walking produces many health benefits. The problem with doing it regularly, if you’re at all like me, is that the pressures and responsibilities of job, career, family, and everyday living¬† often get in the way of taking care of your body. It’s hard to be consistent with any kind of exercise program — even one as simple as walking.

But here’s the thing: If you’re over 50 and you’re not exercising at least three days every week for at least 30 minutes or more each time, it’s time to make a change. Stop sacrificing your health and possibly shortening your life for the sake of your employer or a TV show or a computer game, or whatever else you’re doing that’s preventing you from at least taking a walk every day. Start putting your body and your health higher on your priority list. Just do it! Everything else you are doing with your time will suddenly fade into insignificance if your health fails and you are no longer able physically or mentally to maintain your previous busy schedule and lifestyle.

Before beginning any walking or exercise program, check with your doctor if any of the following conditions apply to you:

  • you’ve been inactive physically for more than a year
  • you are over 65 and you don’t currently exercise
  • you’ve been diagnosed with heart trouble
  • you have chest pain, especially when exerting yourself
  • you often feel faint or have severe dizzy spells
  • you have high blood pressure or diabetes

If you are still working for an employer, a good time to begin a regular walking program is during your lunch hour — BEFORE you eat lunch! If you are retired or are self-employed, set a time each day for taking a walk. Schedule it just like you would a meeting or any other regular activity. Commit to your schedule and stick to it. Share your commitment with your coworkers or colleagues and ask them to help you stick to your commitment by not calling or scheduling meetings that might intrude on your walking time. They may even want to commit to walking at the same time themselves!

Be sure to get a comfortable pair of walking shoes that have a flexible sole and an adequate cushion for your instep and heel. Start with short distances and time periods (10 to 15 minutes) if you haven’t been walking or exercising regularly. Gradually increase the time and the pace every two weeks. Be sure to warm up first with three to five minutes of slow walking, and cool down in the same way after the brisk part of your walk.

Finally, if you ARE confined to a wheel chair, or if for some other reason you are unable to walk, ask your doctor or health care provider what exercises or movements you can safely do that will increase your heart rate enough to increase the amount of oxygen your muscles are able to absorb from the blood flowing through them. Remember, the key is MOVEMENT. Move as many of your joints and muscles as you can, as often as you can. Any movement is beneficial if it’s rigorous enough to cause your muscles to demand more oxygen.

So start moving and you will begin thriving! Keep on moving and you will keep on thriving!

Fit After 50: Warming Up and Cooling Down

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.

Fine After 50: Improving Your Physical Balance

Phil and I plan to discuss strength training and aerobic conditioning as well as stretching in future posts but before we jump into those meatier topics, I thought it might be nice to talk about balance. Per Consumer Affairs, one in ten people will experience difficulty with balance by the time they are 65 years old. There are a lot of reasons why we develop balance issues–and some of them can be indicative of serious physical problems. So, if you have significant problems with dizziness or balancing, it’s a good idea to check it out with your doctor.

If your balance issues are simply an indication of aging, though, there are some simple exercises that you can do to help improve your balance.

One is simply to stand on one foot next to a wall with your hand supporting yourself against the wall. Remove your hand from the wall and see if you can stand without wobbling for at least 30 seconds. Then switch and stand on the other foot. I do this both with and without shoes–the goal is to stand on one foot unsupported without wobbling for at least 30 seconds.

Eventually, you might want to consider graduating to a balance trainer. They look like one-half of a rubber ball stuck in a frame. (For example, check out the Bosu Sport 55 cm Balance Trainer. I am a complete physical dork but I love trying to balance on a balance trainer. Once again, stay close to a wall until you get the hang of it.

Another exercise to consider is a yoga pose called the tree pose (For a great description, click here). In the position, your hands are either in a prayer position in front of your chest or straight up above your head while you stand on one foot. Once again, you should aim to hold this position for at least 30 seconds without wobbling–and once again, if you have a problem, stay close to the wall.

Happy balancing!

Fine After 50: Learning How to Fall

Note: Do not try any of these suggestions without checking first with your doctor or health care provider.

One aspect of being “Fine after 50” is remaining active for as long as you can. As I shared in a previous post, I think that there are at least four different aspects to remaining active: strength, flexibility, aerobic capacity and being able to balance. Parallel to those four aspects, though, is something I think is critically important as well: learning how to fall properly. Falls truly can incapacitate us in ways we cannot anticipate: ask anybody who has broken a hip or both wrists after accidentally tripping and falling. Ask me: I destroyed my left hand and wrist when I tripped and fell in a parking lot in July 2010.

It is possible to fall and come away unscathed. A while ago, my partner, Michael, and I were attending a docent training at a local museum; a group of us walked from a lit hallway into a darkened hall where we were supposed to do a presentation. Unbeknownst to any of us, the room had been used for another presentation and somebody had moved dark wooden benches to the center of the room. Michael fell head over heels when he walked straight into one at a brisk pace.

Michael relaxed and rolled. He twisted his body as he fell so that instead of landing on his face or head, he landed on the back of one of his shoulders. He used the momentum of the fall to help him roll through the fall so that he ended standing up, relatively intact. And that is essentially how to fall correctly:

  • Relax. Do not tense up.
  • Tuck and roll. Protect your head as best you can.
  • If you are falling forward, turn your body so that you land on the back of one of your shoulders. Tuck your head toward your chest, away from the floor.
  • If you are falling backwards, relax and roll as if you are rocking in a rocking chair, keeping your chin to your chest.
  • Try to roll with the fall–not against the fall but with the fall. Think of steering when your car hits water or ice and skids–you turn with the skid until you straighten out. Same here, roll with the fall so that you are in control as much as you can be.

These suggestions are not something that you can do without practice–and it truly helps to be strong and flexible as well. If possible, check out local self-defense classes or see if your adult education has specific classes on falling. If not, you can practice falling on your bed.

More later….

Keeping Fit after 50: Introduction

Keeping fit means something different to a 30-year old than it does to those of us over 50, especially those of us with physical challenges. A few years ago, I had dinner in a restaurant next to a family with an elderly relative. She was really quite elegant and from what i could overhear, she seemed mentally¬† and emotionally vital. When dinner was over, though, she lacked sufficient strength to raise herself up from the chair in which she was sitting. To get up, she had to rock back and forth until her body had enough momentum so that she could push herself out of the chair using both her arms. Even with the help of added momentum, she needed assistance to stand. I remember thinking, “Wow! It’s her legs. Her thigh muscles are weak. If only her thigh muscles were stronger, she might have a lot more freedom…”

Prior to that moment, I saw exercising and dieting as simply the means to achieve the elusive goal of being physically attractive. Not that looking great is not a worthy goal–it is just that if you look great and still can’t hoist yourself out of a chair, looking great loses its value. In the long run, it’s better to aim toward staying mobile and active.

There are four different areas to being physically fit after 50: strength, flexibility, aerobic capacity and balance. These four areas form the pillars of your physical fitness.

  • Strength helps you move your body through space.
  • Flexibility helps you move freely.
  • Aerobic capacity provides stamina.
  • Balance helps keep you from falling.

Neglecting any one of these four pillars can cause instability and keep you from reaching your full “at this point in time” physical potential. For example, flexibility without strength can lead to instability; strength without flexibility can lead to injury. Without stamina, you might find it hard to maintain quality of life. And trust me on this: you can wipe out everything with one bad fall.

Coming soon: Where to begin…