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Not too late at any age

Some people get past 50 and count themselves out of the fitness movement. But there's no reason to, experts say.

October 20, 2003|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

It's difficult to ignore the persistent messages about the importance of getting fit, but one demographic seems to be left out of the loop -- men and women over 50.

They often suffer from stereotypes (including their own) about exercise; they aren't targeted in fitness-related marketing campaigns; and many are afraid to start an exercise program because of the perceived risk of injury or death, according to reports on older people and physical activity published in this month's American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The issue contains essays and original research on promoting exercise and the benefits of movement.

"Some people think, 'I've been active my whole life, and now it's my time to rest,' " says Marcia Ory, professor in the school of rural public health at Texas A&M University and lead author of the journal article on common misconceptions about older people and fitness.

The article was a synthesis of Ory's observations as director of the Active for Life program at A&M, which promotes regular exercise for people 50 and older, as well as from various studies on exercise funded by the National Institute on Aging, where Ory was chief of social science research on aging.

"That's the wrong kind of thinking, that it's fine to be active in your 20s and 30s, but now that you're retired, it's time to rest. You should stay as active as you can."

The image of older people as frail is changing, but slowly.

"It used to be that seniors were told, if you've had a heart attack, don't be active," says Ory. "But we know now that being active helps prevent and manage almost every chronic disease, including diabetes and arthritis."

One reason Ory believes that older people don't join gyms or take exercise classes is that they see ads featuring buff bodies in skimpy spandex, and few, if any, people who look like them. "You don't look at that person as a role model for something you might engage in," she says.

Although organizations such as the YMCA and the International Council on Active Aging promote fitness for the older set, Ory says there is no one-size-fits-all message for older Americans. People in their 50s have different fitness goals from people in their 80s, and cultural and gender differences must be taken into account.

"Some groups like to dance; others like to walk," she says. "Some might be more family-oriented, so the message might be, 'Stay active so you can dance at your grandchild's wedding.' "

Also keeping some people from regular exercise is the common admonition to have a pre-workout physical, including a stress test that checks for cardiovascular disease. That, says Miriam C. Morey, coauthor of a study on health advocacy, sends a mixed message about fitness: It's good to exercise, but it might hurt you.

Fear of having a heart attack or other injuries "should not preclude you from starting to exercise," says Morey, as long as people start slowly and build endurance. The researcher with the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center in North Carolina adds, "People who do have symptoms, such as chest pain, are generally already under the care of a physician. But even if you have risk factors, that doesn't mean you'll have an event, and the benefits of exercise far outweigh the risks."

Doctors, she added, tend to be overly cautious with older patients: "They have reason to -- there is the fear of litigation," she adds. "But they should be advocates of exercise, not gatekeepers. Physicians need to be trained in a different way, and let people know that it's OK to exercise, and that the chances of someone hurting themselves are so remote."

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