Originally published Feb. 23, 2020 in The Oakland Press.

By Jane Peterson

We all know how important it is to stay physically active. Moving your joints, raising your heart rate and flexing your muscles are good for not only your physical well-being, but also your emotional health.

“Very simply, the human body was designed to move,” said Brian H. Locke, D.P.T., A.T., C.S.C.S., supervisor, Rehabilitation Services at MidMichigan Medical Center in Mt. Pleasant. “A sedentary lifestyle leads to muscle atrophy, weakness and shortened muscle length.”

In an email, he explained that we have all gotten up in the morning to a noticeably painful back, knee or shoulder. However, as we get up and move around the pain decreases or completely subsides.

“A key benefit from physical activity, which many people do not realize, is pain reduction. Many chronic pain sufferers make the mistake of limiting their activity level because of their pain, when this may actually be contributing to it,” said Locke.

In addition to the cardiovascular benefits of exercise, physical activity greatly impacts our daily activities. The more active we are, the more able we are to perform daily tasks without fatigue or risk of injury. It helps to promote a higher quality of life as we age.

The good news is that it doesn’t matter what your skill level is at, how long you lived a sedentary lifestyle or how you struggle to find the time to devote to exercise, once you start moving again, your body will positively react to change and you’ll begin to quickly notice the benefits.

Of course, winter isn’t always the easiest season to spend outdoors and a brisk walk can be treacherous when sidewalks and roadways are icy.

“When the winter weather hits, many of us tend to spend way too much time sitting. It is important for all of us, at any age, to remain active regardless of the weather outside,” said Locke.

Maria Diaz, wellness director at the Downriver Family YMCA in Southgate, suggests moving inside by participating in an activity like swimming, which is good for the entire body; tai chi, to help build stamina and strength; and stationary biking, where with classes like Silver Sneakers, you focus on cardio and strength.

When the weather just won’t cooperate, Locke suggested that regular walkers take their routine inside to a local mall, store or fitness center. He added that treadmills work well in a pinch, but are no substitute for an actual walk.

If you prefer to exercise outdoors in colder weather, Diaz said to pay attention to weather conditions and wind chills, know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia, dress in layers, protect your head, hands, feet and ears, use safety gear and sunscreen and drink plenty of fluids.

In addition to cardiovascular exercise designed to raise your heart rate, Locke also recommends incorporating strength training whenever possible. A gym membership provides many opportunities, but even if you don’t have one, you can maintain strength, endurance and balance with these exercises suggested by Locke:

  • Squats. An easy way to increase strength, a hip hinge squat can increase lower body strength and stability, as well as reinforce the proper technique of going from a sitting to standing position. “As we age, we tend to rely more on our arms to assist us as we stand instead of using our legs,” he said. “Many patients are surprised how difficult it is to stand up without using their arms; however, anyone at any age has potential to improve this strength and endurance.”
  • Step ups. Most of us have at least one step in our homes and performance of controlled step ups can improve quadriceps strength, stability and coordination.
  • Standing hip abductions. These exercises work the outside of the hips. Working specifically on this area helps to improve stability and balance with gait.
  • Single leg balance. Stand near a counter, table or other stable surface for support if needed and stand on one leg. Make sure to keep space between your knees to prevent yourself from cheating. Balance can become an issue for everyone, so specific focus on it can help as we advance further into the aging process.

Remember to start out slowly and consult your doctor if you are beginning a new exercise regimen or have any questions about adding new activities to your current plan. Also, don’t be down on yourself if you miss a day or two here and there. Everyone gets busy and has to make choices.

Even if you skip a workout, keep track of the calories burned and the movements you make while going about your everyday routine. Keep track of your steps as you get groceries or go shopping. Think about the exercise you are getting if you babysit your grandchildren. Add some extra movement as you mop floors, do dishes and vacuum. Add in your recreational activities like bowling, golfing, mowing the lawn and gardening. These all count, too.

“Physical activity or exercise can improve your health and reduce the risk of developing several diseases like Type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease,” said Diaz. “Physical activity and exercise can have immediate and long term health benefits. Most importantly, regular activity can improve your quality of life.”

Ultimately, it’s best if you find an activity, such as swimming or dancing, that makes you happy.

“If you enjoy the activity, you are more likely to stick with it,” said Locke. “Also, don’t be afraid of strength training. Virtually everyone is capable of making strength gains, regardless of age. Each individual may need to go about the training in a different manner depending upon their unique needs, but everyone can benefit from improving their strength and muscular endurance.”

At the Downriver Family YMCA, Silver Sneakers and Older Adult classes both offer cardio, weight training, balance and coordination.

Keeping it safe

Many people enjoy taking their physical fitness routine outdoors during winter. The snow and ice open up different possibilities that just aren’t possible during other times of the year. Whether you like cross-country skiing, hiking, ice skating or playing platform tennis, Brian H. Locke, D.P.T., A.T., C.S.C.S., supervisor, Rehabilitation Services at MidMichigan Medical Center in Mt. Pleasant , offers these tips for staying safe while exercising outdoors throughout February and March:

  • Have a partner when being physically active outdoors
  • Make sure you are aware of areas which may be ice covered and/or slick and if they cannot be avoided, “walk like a penguin.” In other words, keep your knees relaxed, point your toes out, take short steps and deliberately walk slowly to help avoid falls
  • Pace yourself. It is much easier to get winded while being active in the cold. The cold temperatures can cause constriction of your blood vessels with decreased oxygen delivery to your heart. This along with a high activity level can lead to high blood pressure and an increased risk for a heart attack. This is why anyone with a cardiac-related history is cautioned to stay away from activities such as shoveling snow out in the cold
  • Dress for the weather and the activity. It is always easier to remove layers rather than add them once you are involved in your activity.

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