Regular exercise is easy to lay aside because, frankly, it may seem like the least important thing on your schedule. But exercise is important. Studies show that regular exercise can give you more energy, a better quality of life, a healthier body composition, better mental health, better balance and coordination, improved sleep, and a longer life expectancy.

As you age you have much to gain from getting and staying fit. Exercising regularly and staying physically active can prevent or delay serious problems like coronary artery disease, stroke, type 2 (formerly called adult-onset or noninsulin-dependent) diabetes, cancer, bone loss and osteoporosis. In some cases it may even improve your health if you already have a disease or disability.

The good news is you can increase your fitness level with as little as 30 minutes of low to moderately intense physical activity daily, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine. The most important thing is to incorporate physical activity into your lifestyle and maintain it, according to Edward Laskowski, M.D., co-director of the Sports Medicine Center at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.

"Consistency is more important than intensity," Dr. Laskowski says. "And you can accumulate short periods of exercise throughout the day rather than doing it all at once. Studies show that three 10-minute doses of exercise can be just as effective for heart health as one 30-minute session."

So throw out the idea that you have to spend your life at the gym to be fit. Adopt a new mind-set and think of exercise as a simple, routine part of your day. The best time to begin exercising is now. It's never too late to start, even if you've never exercised before.

Building blocks of fitness

Three basic types of activities can improve your health and make you more fit:

Aerobic exercises increase your breathing and heart rate to improve the health of your heart, lungs and circulatory system. These exercises involve repeated contraction of large muscle groups but don't require excessive speed. The net result of aerobic exercise is increased stamina and endurance.

Strength and balance exercises build stronger muscles to improve posture, balance and coordination. Strength training also increases your metabolism, increases lean muscle mass, supports joints, slows bone loss, cuts the risk of injury and makes you feel more energetic.

Stretching exercises help maintain the ideal range in which you can bend and stretch muscles around a joint. Maximizing the motion about a joint helps prevent joint and muscle pain and injury.

Making fitness a part of your life

So how do you begin incorporating these activities into your life? First of all, it may be a good idea to consult your doctor before you begin an exercise program. If you are over 40 and sedentary, a smoker or overweight or if you have a chronic health condition, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, kidney disease, liver disease or arthritis, it's essential that you see your doctor first. He or she can help you develop an exercise program that's best for you.

After determining your appropriate level of exercise, commit yourself to being active. This doesn't mean you won't have setbacks or take breaks. The key is to keep on going even after an occasional layoff.

A typical activity session might include a 5-minute warm-up, 30 minutes of aerobic activity, which you can build up to, 10 to 20 minutes of strength and balance exercises, and 5 to 10 minutes of cooling down and stretching. However, you can spread activities throughout the day.

Activity tips

To help you get started, Dr. Laskowski gives the following advice for each type of activity:

Aerobic and endurance.

Find something you enjoy doing. Boredom is the primary reason exercise programs fail. "The ideal piece of equipment," says Dr. Laskowski, "is something you like to do."

Aerobic activity doesn't have to be expensive or inconvenient. Grab your neighbor and take a brisk walk around the block. Watch TV while walking on a treadmill. Go hiking or play hopscotch with your children. Take a night off and go dancing. Wash your car. Walk up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Park in the far corner of the parking lot. Short doses of exercise add up. Varying your activities will also make it easier to keep them up.

Remember to start out slowly. Don't go for dramatic increases. Instead, build up gradually by adding a minute a week to your aerobic activity. Mark your progress on your own personal activity log. "One of the best ways to change a habit is to keep track of it," says Dr. Laskowski. "An exercise log will give you a visual record of improvement and motivate you to keep going."

During aerobic exercise you should be able to carry on a conversation with a companion. If you are too winded to talk, you're probably pushing too hard.

If you have arthritis or joint pain, do low- or nonimpact activities, such as riding a stationary or recumbent bike, or exercise in a pool. Even if you don't like to swim, walking in the shallow end can provide aerobic benefits, and the buoyancy of the water will take stress off your joints.

Also, try before you buy. Exercise equipment too often ends up in the classified ads rather than in use.

Strength and balance.

Each decade between the ages of 30 and 70 you lose about 5 percent of your lean-muscle mass. Strength training can slow this aging process.

Free weights are a great way to build lean-muscle mass because they simulate what you do in real life, like carrying boxes or lifting a tired child. You usually can buy weights by the pound. A used sporting goods store or the classified ads of your local newspaper might be good places to look. When you first begin a program, try higher repetitions of a lower weight. As you improve, aim to lift the amount of weight that exhausts your muscles after 12 repetitions. If doing 12 repetitions is too easy, try adding more weight. If you can't complete 12 repetitions, use less weight.

Again, start out slowly. Studies show that doing one set of 12 repetitions is just as effective as doing three sets. Make an appointment with a certified professional, such as a fitness trainer, to learn proper technique. Improper technique is one of the leading causes of injuries.

Remember to work all of the major muscle groups: abdominals, legs, chest, back, shoulders and arms. Balance your workout. Strengthen muscles on opposite sides of a joint equally. For example, work your triceps, biceps, the back of your thigh (hamstrings) and the front of your thigh (quadriceps) as well as the muscles on the back of your shoulder (posterior deltoid) and the muscles on the front of your shoulder (anterior deltoids and pectorals). It's best to perform strength training 2 or 3 days a week.

Flexibility and stretching.

This aspect of fitness can be especially frustrating. Your vision of flexibility might be akin to what you would expect from a ballerina or a tae kwon do artist, but your body may tell you otherwise. It's important to remember that everyone's genetic set-point for flexibility is different. Your ability to stretch might vary greatly from your best friend's. However, this is an area in which you can improve and gain more range of motion.

Although it's good to stretch before and after exercise, you might not have time to do both. The ideal time to stretch is when your muscles are heated up — after you've exercised. Dr. Laskowski recommends beginning your exercise with a slow version of your preferred activity that day. If you're walking, start out slowly and gradually build up speed. Then stretch when you have finished your walk.

When stretching, hold your stretches for at least 30 seconds. Focus on those muscles you use the most. If you play golf or do racquet sports, focus on your shoulder muscles. If you walk or run, stretch calf muscles, hamstrings and quadriceps. Also remember to keep your back flexible. Your back muscles support your spine, and a healthy spine is crucial to any activity.

Setting your exercise expectations

OK, you know that exercise improves your health. But what you want are immediate, noticeable results. What can you reasonably expect?

With strength training, such as using weight-training machines, you'll start to feel better quickly, but your muscles' shape and definition may take up to 6 weeks to change. If you do one set three times a week, you'll likely see dramatic strength changes in the first 12 weeks. Those weeks can produce an increase in strength of 10 percent to 25 percent. You can continue to build strength by gradually increasing the amount of weight you use. Be consistent and hang in there with your strength-training exercises.

If your goal is to improve your cardiovascular fitness, you'll achieve noticeable results after 3 to 6 months of consistent activity. You’ll notice changes even sooner than that, though, in how much you can do and how fast you can do it. Try such aerobic exercises as walking, biking or jogging. You should find that you're gradually and steadily able to undertake longer, more intense workouts.

Losing weight by exercising is more difficult. To lose 1 pound of body fat through exercise, you need to expend 3,500 calories more than you consume. Losing weight through exercise alone is difficult. You'll achieve better results if you also reduce the calories you take in.

To a better life

It's easy to get sidetracked and neglect regular exercise. Remember, however, that it takes only about 30 minutes a day to create a significant change in your quality of life. Make a list of all of the benefits that come with regular exercise and put it in a highly visible place. Encourage your friends and family to be active as well. Taking care of your body is one of the most valuable gifts you can give yourself.

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