Dr. Bill Dorfman, a 64-year-old cosmetic dentist in Southern California, prides himself on looking years younger, a trait he attributes to good genes and a daily exercise regimen.
Three days a week he focuses on abs and cardio, the other days is for lifting light weights with high reps.
Dorfman says he started practicing seriously after taking a break from dental school when he was often in pain. Then he realized that his fitness had faded into the background after years as a high school swimmer and gymnast. “What I found was the more I practiced, the better I felt,” he says.
Outside of the gym, he credits his daily Words With Friends habit to keeping his mind sharp. He also makes evening meals with various friends to stay connected.
Dorfman’s health habits underline that one of the keys to living longer is a fitness regimen, but one that also includes mental and emotional fitness.
“We really need to look at an older adult’s life with a holistic lens — if they’re really happy, healthy, and whole,” said Dor Skuler, co-founder and CEO of Intuition Robotics and an expert on loneliness in aging adults.
Here are four ways to focus on your entire body as you age.
Exercise for the body and brain
Staying physically active can prevent injuries and help the body heal faster when they happen, and it’s also strongly linked to good mental health and brain function.
Dr. Kirk Erickson, director of Translational Neurosciences at AdventHealth Central Florida, where he studies the plasticity and adaptability of brain systems, has found that physical activity is one of the best ways to keep the brain healthy throughout life.
Erickson’s research shows that as we age, the brain shrinks, particularly the hippocampus responsible for memory formation. Exercise can help preserve and, in some cases, enlarge this part of the brain. There’s a lot to learn about how and why this is, but Erickson says the effects are better the longer you’re into these habits, so it’s good to start young.
Of course, you can still reap the benefits if you start later in life, he says. You may find that over time you can recall memories and information more easily and have better executive function and a longer attention span when your brain is at its best, he says.
He recommends moderate exercise, such as walking, 5 days a week for 30 minutes.
Aside from walking, Dr. Gary Small, chairman of psychiatry at Hackensack Meridian Health, that strength training helps combat age-related muscle loss and can lead to longer life. In addition, balance exercises can help prevent slips and falls — the leading cause of injury in adults age 65 and older.
Jasmine Marcus, a physical therapist at Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca, where she works with patients of all ages and physical activity levels, recommends getting on your toes if you’re new to it. She suggests starting with some sort of group fitness class like Zumba, anything that gets your heart rate up. It also helps if you have a partner who holds you accountable, she says.
Strive for mental fitness
Small also recommends doing activities that keep the brain in shape. One study showed that the simple act of reading articles, online articles, and searching for topics on Google provided valuable mental stimulation. Doing crossword puzzles, reading books, playing games, pursuing hobbies, and daydreaming all contribute to mental acuity.
Stress management is also a crucial part of maintaining mental fitness. Just 10 minutes of meditation a day can improve mood and cognitive agility, Small says, rewiring the brain and strengthening neural circuits.
“You don’t have to go to a retreat in Nepal or India to meditate, but you can learn the skills,” he says.
In an advisory this year, the US Surgeon General warned about the loneliness epidemic in the country, which has a negative impact on health. One study equated a lack of social connection to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Other studies show that social connectedness reduces the risk of premature death. Clearly, social and emotional fitness is key to aging well.
Skuler, whose company creates AI-powered social companions for aging adults to keep them active and engaged, says major life changes, such as the death of a partner, often lead to loneliness.
“That is by far a turning point,” he says. Suddenly no one asks how you slept or what you have planned for today. A similar problem arises with asynchronous aging, where one of the partners, for example, has a decline with dementia. Other events, such as retiring or sending the kids off to college, can have similar impacts on social well-being, says Skuler.
ElliQ, the robot companions that Skuler’s company creates, is one way to help aging adults stay connected, but he encourages all people to maintain friendships and relationships with family members. Volunteering, he says, can also add purpose and connection to your life.
Develop good sleep hygiene
There’s a myth that seniors need less sleep as they age, but Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, consultant and science reviewer at Rise Science, says sleeping gets harder with age. As a result, many seniors go to bed later and get up earlier.
“People are programmed to stay awake 16 [hours] and sleep 8 hours,” he says. “An elder’s ability to do that decreases, so they have to work a little harder at it.”
The causes of poor sleep can be both social and physical. We become more sensitive to sounds and temperatures as we age, says Zeitzer. So the garbage truck that never woke you up on its weekly route can now wake you up at 6 a.m., he says. Similarly, a bedroom that is too hot or too cold can make it difficult to sleep.
As we age, we also become more sensitive to caffeine. So if you used to be able to drink a cup of coffee at night, you might find yourself having trouble falling asleep hours later.
There is also a major shift that takes place once we retire, with the social restrictions surrounding sleep suddenly being lifted. Seniors who have no social obligations early in the morning may find they are less likely to sleep at normal hours. For example, a daytime nap can “cannibalize their sleep at night,” says Zeitzer.
Older adults may find that getting too little sleep or a fragmented night’s sleep can lead to acute cognition problems the next day, Zeitzer adds. Poor sleep over the long term has been linked to health problems, including depression, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
A good routine can solve some sleep problems. For starters, avoid caffeine later in the day. And keep in mind to adjust the temperature in your sleeping environment to encourage rest.
And he recommends finding a way to unwind before going to bed. While some experts warn against using electronics before squinting, Zeitzer says watching a TV show can be helpful if it makes you feel more relaxed and ready for bed.
“It’s always good to strive to close your eyes and fall asleep, but other people need more types of relaxation routines,” he says.
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