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New Year’s Resolutions are something the majority of individuals are familiar with. Many look at the new year as a chance to start fresh — assess potential shortcomings of the past year and vow to do better in the upcoming one. Quite often, lofty commitments or goals to improve a specific area are made, and a common focus chosen is physical health. In fact, according to a 2015 Ipsos Reid poll, one in three Canadians who do make New Year’s Resolutions gear them towards bettering their health and fitness levels.1 And while there is definitely nothing wrong with making that kind of resolution, the reality is that of those who do make them, 73 percent eventually break them.2

The true point to be made, however, has nothing to do with the value of New Year’s Resolutions. Rather, it’s about recognizing that when physical activity is viewed in this way, it often goes hand in hand with an all-or-nothing mindset, when the focus should instead be on building it in as part of personal and family lifestyle. In order to mould long-term positive behaviours, individuals need to respect and understand that health is an ongoing process, with needs and physiological factors changing throughout every life stage.

Key physiological changes

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The human body is an incredible specimen: the heart beats 100,000 times per day, pumping blood through 160,000 kilometres’ worth of blood vessels; the simple act of walking uses up to 200 of the body’s roughly 650 skeletal muscles; ounce for ounce, the bones of the body are stronger than steel.3 While these types of physiological facts likely aren’t day-to-day considerations that motivate fitness endeavours, they do highlight the intricate structure and impressive functions of the body.

Among those in the physical health and wellness sector, education for clients and patients often stresses the importance of acknowledging age-related factors. “Starting as early as our 30s, our muscles begin to undergo changes, including an increase in fatigability, weakness, a decrease in endurance capacity and muscle wasting. These changes in muscle function rapidly progress as individuals progress through their 50s,” notes Jon Howard, BKin, MSc, CEO of Apex Occupational Health and Wellness. From a cardiovascular standpoint, changes that occur as a result of aging include less-efficient pumping of the heart, hardening of the artery walls, decline in maximum heart rate, and thickening of the walls of the heart. A key point that Howard highlights, however, is that “many of these changes that occur in the cardiovascular system are modifiable; in other words, they’re largely preventable through regular exercise, proper diet, getting enough sleep, managing stress and avoiding smoking.”

Quick tips to get moving

  • Instead of sitting while watching TV, walk on the spot or do some bodyweight exercises.
  • Consider wearable fitness tech for motivation and to track progress.
  • Team up with a friend or make it a family goal to do something active every day.
  • Seek out health and fitness resources and programs in your community.
  • Try tai chi, yoga or another activity that offers physical and mental benefits.
  • Find ways to incorporate “active transportation” in your local area.

Bone health

The strength and health of an individual’s bones is another key age-related consideration that’s closely tied to physical activity. Osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to become thin and porous and therefore lose strength, affects approximately 1.4 million Canadians, with at least one in three women and one in five men suffering an osteoporotic fracture during their lifetime.4 “The reality is that men and women begin to lose bone mass in the mid-30s, so it’s never too early to prioritize bone health,” notes Megan Helgason, Geriatric Consult Action Team Physiotherapist at Interior Health Authority. “As individuals age, it becomes more important to incorporate various forms of activities in order to maximize the benefits for both bone and overall health. Programs should include a mix of weight-bearing aerobic exercises, strength, posture and balance training, each of which offers overlapping benefits,” Helgason explains. Weight-bearing aerobic exercises, in particular, are crucial, as they directly stimulate bone remodelling and therefore have a direct positive effect on maintaining bone mass and density. “An activity is considered weight bearing when bones and joints are bearing weight against gravity, so this includes activities such as walking, jogging, skiing, dancing, stair climbing and yoga,” notes Howard.

Leading an active lifestyle

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With physiological changes in mind, the task then becomes finding the best ways to effectively counteract them based on individual needs. Study after study links the benefits of physical activity to reducing the risk of over 25 chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, certain cancers and Type-2 diabetes. Being active also offers the supplementary benefits of decreased stress levels, reducing the likelihood of dementia and prolonging independence as individuals age. But despite the wealth of beneficial information out there, the fact remains that 60 percent of adult Canadians are overweight or obese and 50 percent don’t get the recommended levels of daily activity.5

What it comes down to for many is trying to bridge the conceptual gap between knowing physical activity is good for you and making time for a more fitness-focused lifestyle. This is something Howard addresses a lot with his clients. “Life is busy, there’s no way around it. One of the first steps I take with individuals is really digging into the ‘why.’ Why do they want to work towards being more active and what are the driving forces? This establishes personal reasons as to why it’s important and the motivators, which then sets the stage nicely for effective discussions on how to fit it in,” he says.

In general, the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) recommends 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic physical activity, plus two bone and muscle strengthening activities, per week.6 While the total amount may seem like a lot to some people, the task becomes much simpler and manageable when broken down into increments and applied to activities individuals enjoy. As Howard emphasizes, “It doesn’t have to mean dragging yourself to the gym at 5 a.m. five days a week; the health benefits are a result of movement, not gym time.” As part of a healthy lifestyle, physical activity can mean anything from walking the dog and raking leaves to bike riding or tobogganing with the family to focused jogging or circuit training. To assist Canadians in the process of adapting activity as a lifestyle choice, the Public Health Agency of Canada have advanced beyond their earlier Canada’s Physical Activity Guides to develop age-specific tip sheets for children, youth, adults and older adults.

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One key approach Helgason often recommends is participating in a group fitness environment. “Joining a group creates a twofold benefit: overall health gains and improved socialization through multiple interactions. If an individual typically struggles with internal motivation, it’s important to harness the external motivators.” Depending on circumstances, this approach may become even more valuable for older adults who may be facing increased isolation and a lack of daily interactions they may once have been used to.

While most individuals have a general knowledge of anatomy and the basics of the human body, building a better understanding of the connection between activity and age-related factors may be a strong driving force in making physical health a priority. For many, it all comes down to a change in mindset — choosing to focus on physical well-being not because we have to but rather because we want to lead an enjoyable, active lifestyle at every age.

A close connection: physical activity and nutrition

From childhood to later life stages, healthy eating is a key element in ensuring the body is able to develop and function properly. Adopting to focus on physical well-being is a very positive step and one that should go hand in hand with a focus on fuelling the body with nutritious whole foods. Specifically for bone health, both calcium and vitamin D are crucial. Individuals between the ages of 19 and 50 need 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily, and for those over 50, the amount increases to 1,200 milligrams.7 Vitamin D increases the absorption of calcium, and the recommendation ranges from 400 to 1,000 IU depending on age.8 The recipes featured, provided by the Dairy Farmers of Canada, are each high in calcium and vitamin D.