Celebrate Senior Health and Fitness Day Today!

If you read Breathing Room regularly, you know that I often write posts about physical activity. I’ve written about my dad and I exercising together, the mental health benefits of exercise, and tips for exercising outside. Since May 25th is Senior Health and Fitness day, I thought this would be a good time to talk about physical activity for seniors in particular. Regardless of age, exercise is important for good health, but for seniors, there are some specific things that can make it even more important (although occasionally more challenging too, but we’ll get to that).

So, why is it so important that we continue to be physically active as we age? Many of them are the same benefits we have mentioned before, but they become so much more important as we get older. To read about many of the benefits, check out this article from the National Council on Aging: https://www.ncoa.org/article/the-life-changing-benefits-of-exercise-after-60

But, let’s also mention a few important benefits now. First, exercise helps keep bones strong. Since bone density decreases more as we age, keeping bones strong can help prevent serious injuries from trips or falls. Second, exercise can help prevent illnesses that are common for older people like cancer, diabetes, and hypertension. And if people already have these conditions, exercising can help manage symptoms. Finally, exercise might help improve immunity, which helps keep seniors healthy.

It is also important to keep in mind that seniors might have more health factors they need to consider when beginning to exercise. The best thing to do is talk to your doctor before getting started. Your doctor, or some other healthcare professional familiar with your health situation, can help you determine if you need to avoid (or focus on) and particular type of exercise. For example, many seniors experience joint pain from arthritis or some other condition that can require them to avoid certain movements.

Changes in balance and muscle density can also make seniors feel unsure about exercise. Having a place to sit nearby, good shoes, or some other support can help improve confidence. So, make sure you have what you need to feel comfortable being active! Remember, any increase in physical activity can help improve health so whether it is swimming, walking, biking, gardening, or some other movement, every little bit helps.

If you are a senior who is looking to get moving, check out some resources for seniors in your area. Your local center for aging, senior center, or even AARP might have information about exercise programs that are specifically designed for seniors. You can also check out this link for some online resources: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-older-adults-can-get-started-exercise

 If you are someone who knows a senior, reach out to them and see if there is a way you can help them be more active. Having support from a friend or family member can help make it easier to get moving. Physical activity is important and although there can be more to consider when becoming active as a senior, the benefits make it worth the effort!

The Dimensions of Wellness

At the beginning of February, Breathing Room special guest writer Alex Chan, Mental Health Specialist with the University of Maryland Extension, offered some reasons why we have trouble keeping our New Year’s resolutions.

Even after acknowledging the pitfalls in goal-setting, it may still be difficult to set a reasonable goal and an accompanying step-by-step process to get there. By understanding the dimensions of personal wellness, you may be able to identify the areas affecting your ability to maintain a healthier lifestyle.

Creating A Healthier Life, A Step-By-Step Guide to Wellness from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration identifies the eight dimensions of wellness as:

Physical – the area that encompasses physical health and all that it includes. Things like sleep, exercise, and eating well all contribute to the physical dimension of wellness.

Emotional – this dimension of wellness is about maintaining emotional health. Stress management, coping skills, and therapy are activities relevant to this area.

Social – maintaining social wellness includes aspects like having a support system, setting boundaries, and interactions with social media.

Spiritual – this includes spending time alone, prayer, or even spending time in nature to care for yourself.

Intellectual (Personal) – spending time partaking in hobbies, following goals, and validating your identity all factor into your personal wellbeing.

Environmental (Space) – ensuring and maintaining a safe, stable, and healthy environment contributes to your environmental or special wellness.

Financial – taking control of your money so it doesn’t take control of you.

Occupational (Work) – taking breaks and managing time at work are tasks that help maintain occupational wellness

Each of the dimensions interact and affect one another, creating multifaceted obstacles to creating a path to your wellness goals. Do the following activity for each of your wellness goals to begin outlining your personal step-by-step guide to self care. Once you have your plan, set a reminder to review your plan after 2-3 weeks and see if any unforeseen obstacles have emerged.

1. Define one wellness goal that you’d like to achieve.

2. Which dimensions of wellness are involved?

3. What small step can you take towards reaching that goal?

4. When you will take the action described in #3?

5. Are there any barriers to taking your first step? How will you deal with them?

For more information, or to request a training in self care and stress management, contact Alex Chan at alexchan@umd.edu.

Why Couldn’t I Keep My New Years’ Resolution?

Now that we are over a month past the New Year, it is a good time to assess the status of our New Years’ resolutions, if you made any. Although this might be a disappointing moment for those of us who have not been able to sustain the commitments we made, it is still important to look back on them and identify what worked and what did not. This reflection enables us to learn from any mistakes that we made during the process. 

First, let us acknowledge that change is hard. There is quite a bit to the process of change that is involved before we even make a commitment to change . We have to recognize that something is a problem, weigh the options of changing or maintaining the status quo, and create a plan that is sufficiently detailed and achievable (more on this later), all before we make our first attempt at a new behavior. Furthermore, once we do take our first steps, we have to monitor for pitfalls and ensure that we can sustain the new behavior long-term.

For the sake of this article, we will take the commitment to a New Years’ Resolution as evidence that you had some kind of plan (or intent) to change, which would indicate that you had already recognized a problem and decided that change was more appealing than the status quo. Some of the most common pitfalls in creating lasting change are that the goal itself is either too vague or too lofty.

Too vague: I want to get fit.

This goal is not specific or meaningful enough to spur organized action. What does being fit mean to you? Being able to run a mile without stopping? Being flexible enough to play with your grandchildren on the floor? Having a specific goal focuses your effort and reduces the chance of feeling overwhelmed by possibilities.

Too lofty: I (never was a runner, and) am going to run a marathon next month. 

Lofty goals impose harsh expectations that may ultimately demoralize you, even if they are specific and meaningful. The pride of achieving smaller milestones will provide the motivation to keep moving toward the loftier goal.

As your goals become more specific and achievable, it is important to celebrate milestones as a chance to both feel good about your accomplishments and set the next achievable goal for yourself in that realm. 

What if you set small achievable goals that are meaningful to you, yet still find yourself unable to follow through consistently? 

Unexamined Root Issue 

A lack of sustained change indicates that the status quo might serve a more important function in your life than you have imagined. Say you are a parent of two young children who wants to start a workout regimen in the mornings. If working out every morning means you aren’t able to cook the healthiest, warmest breakfast for your children, guilt may be keeping you from changing. In essence, you value providing for your children in a specific way more than you value the personal fitness changes. For another example, what if you resolved to stick to a reasonable budget each month by reducing frivolous spending? Inflation and price hikes aside, perhaps you have not identified that shopping gives you a sense of freedom – a compelling reason NOT to stick to a budget where that sense of freedom is limited.

Whether it is guilt, feeling restricted, or some other emotional issue, it is often difficult for people to identify and tackle these issues alone. Friends and family are a good place to start the conversation about some of these root issues, because sometimes close associates can see our blind spots – personal qualities or circumstances we are unaware of but that are visible to others. Talking about our goals with others also helps us rehearse our belief in their importance. Licensed mental health professionals can help us look deeper into the emotional issues that may be holding us back, and can also help us develop more specific, achievable goals that keep us motivated in the long-run. They can also help brainstorm new ways of meeting formerly unacknowledged needs in ways that do not interfere with the changes or resolutions that you are trying to make.

The blog written by Breathing Room special guest contributor Alex Chan, Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist with University of Maryland Extension.

Enjoying Winter Weather Safely

Often, my inspiration for a blog post will come from my own life. I will experience something or get curious about something and then do some research to answer my own question. During that process, if I find interesting information that might benefit others, then I write a blog post to share what I’ve learned. This week, I was reminded of the importance of being prepared if you are going to exercise outside when the weather is cold. I found myself about a mile from home, with the sun going down in leggings that were not thick enough for the cold weather… So, for myself and for anyone else who might need it, here are some key tips about being safely active during the winter!

As the old saying goes, safety first! Staying safe and warm is the main concern. We are going to address clothes a bit later, but first we are going to talk about safety concerns unique to being outdoors in cold weather (for more general outdoor physical activity tips, check out this post). First, days are short during the winter. So, if you are an early morning or evening exerciser, odds are that it is going to be dark. If you are going to be near a road or cars, you need to make sure you are visible. Reflective clothing, wearable lights, or walking in well-lit areas can all help you been seen when you are out in the dark. With the short days, cold temperatures, and less sunlight than other times of year, you might be tricked into forgetting how powerful the sun can be. When exercising at daytime, be sure to have sunscreen on any exposed skin. Winter sport lovers might also need sunglasses, as the sun shining off the snow can be very bright. Finally, pay attention to the surfaces outside. Ice can cause you to trip and fall, so if it’s cold enough for ice then pay attention to the ground!

As promised, we will talk about wearing the appropriate clothes (unlike me!). Sticking with the theme of old sayings, I’m thinking of “dress for the job you want”. In this case, we might say dress for the temperature and amount of time you are going to spend outside. Start by checking the temperature and wind chill. If the temperature is below 0° F or if the wind chill is bad, you’ll want to consider staying inside (unless you have some serious cold weather gear). If you think you can dress warm enough to brave the temperature, then your best plan is to dress in layers. As you exercise, your body will generate heat, you will get warmer, and being able to remove layers as needed will really help. Wool is a great bottom layer because it pulls sweat away from your body (you’ll sometimes see clothes that are advertised as moisture wicking, this is what they mean). Finally, as you’re getting your outfit ready to go, you’ll want to pay close attention to your hands, feet, ears, and head. They are all areas that can get cold more quickly than the rest of your body. Hats, gloves, thick socks, and even chemical warming packs can be your best friends!

My final tip is to make sure you drink enough water. Again, in the cold weather you might not notice your sweat as much as you do in warm weather. Even when it is cold, you are likely to sweat, so make sure you are staying hydrated. Especially if you are going to be outside for a longer amount of time, make sure you have water with you. Again, the cold can make things tricky. You might need to carry your water in something insulated so that it doesn’t freeze on you!  

Winter can be tough and for many, Mother Nature keeps them indoors. That is totally fine, as always, my main point is that you should find a way to move that works for you. If going out in the cold sounds miserable, then find ways to move at home or in the gym. But, if you are going to brave the cold temps and go for some outdoor activity, follow these tips to make sure you stay safe!

Walking Safety in the Woods

Earlier this month, we talked about how our communities can make themselves more walkable. Specifically, we talked about how safety issues in a community can make people feel more or less comfortable walking there. But what if you are someone who prefers to exercise outdoors and not in your local neighborhood? Well, Maryland has some beautiful trails for all those looking to get out and do some hiking! But, there are still some important things you’ll want to do to stay safe on the trail.

A group of friends hiking. Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

First, you want to be prepared for everything the outdoors can throw at you! Weather is a big part of that. You might start your hike under sunny skies only for a sudden storm or shower to appear. So, you’ll want to bring layers. Ideally, you want to have some warmer or waterproof clothing you can put on or remove, depending on the situation. You’ll also want to make sure you have good shoes. Especially if shoes get wet, they can rub and cause blisters. So, make sure your gear is going to cover you, regardless of the weather.

Another part of being in the great outdoors is dealing with bugs. Although some bugs (like ticks) are more common in the spring and summer, they are still out there in the fall. Wearing long sleeves and long pants and using bug spray can help you avoid bugs.

While appropriate clothing and weather preparedness is helpful, accidents can still happen. So, you’ll want to have at least a basic first aid kit so you can handle cuts, blisters, stings, and bites that might occur along the trail.

A first aid kit is a great way to handle small injuries, but what about larger injuries or emergencies? The best way to handle these concerns is to be prepared and have a way to get help, if needed. When you get out on the trail, you can pay attention to whether or not you have phone signal. You likely won’t have signal all the time, but if you make note of places where you had signal then you can go back to them and call for help if needed. Another great way to stay safe is to hike with a buddy or group. That way, someone is with you to get help if needed. A final idea for staying safe is to make sure someone knows where you are going and when you should be back. That way, if you end up in a position where you can’t reach out for help, someone knows where you are and when to start looking for you if you aren’t back when you should be.

Hiking is a great way to get out and enjoy the beauty Maryland has to offer! Although accidents can happen, following these safety tips can help you be prepared on the trail. If you are prepared and want to get out and experience the benefits of a great hike, check out https://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/default.aspx for information on Maryland State parks and https://www.visitmaryland.org/list/places-go-hiking for information on some great Maryland hiking spots. Then, get out and get moving on the trail to celebrate Walktober!

To learn more about Walktober and Maryland’s official state exercise, or to sign up to participate in Walktober events, go to https://extension.umd.edu/resource/walktober.

Walkability – What’s it all about?

October is right around the corner, and if you’ve been following this blog then you know what that means: Walktober is coming! I’ve written a bit about it before, but as an overview, Maryland has an official state exercise (which is walking) and every October the state gets together to celebrate, learn about, and get involved with all things walking. You can find more information about Walktober at http://www.mdot.maryland.gov/walktober.

There are so many reasons to get excited about walking. It has important health benefits and can be a fun way to spend time with family and friends. But for some people, finding a place to walk can be difficult. Walking in the area surrounding your home or workplace is easiest for many people because it doesn’t require extra time to get to the place where you want to walk. But there are many places where people don’t feel comfortable or safe walking. Recently, people have started talking more about how Walkable certain places are. Walkability is a way to describe how safe, comfortable, and accessible areas are for pedestrians (or people who are walking there). One of the things Walktober focuses on is pedestrian safety, so I thought it would be good to talk about what community members can do to figure out if there are pedestrian safety issues in their area.

 So what makes an area walkable? Things like even sidewalks, streetlights, landscaping, crosswalks and places to sit all make people feel walking in that area is safe and enjoyable. On the other hand, things like uneven sidewalks (or no sidewalks), litter, speeding cars, and lack of crosswalks makes people less likely to walk in an area. Often, people know right away whether they feel comfortable walking somewhere. However, it can be hard to explain exactly why you feel that way. As Walkability was researched and discussed, people also developed ways to measure Walkability. These measurement tools can be a great way to help you and people in your community identify changes that could be made in your area to encourage walking.

There are different ways to measure walkability. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a Walkability Checklist you can do on your own wherever you live. University of Delaware has a different tool, the Walkability Assessment Tool, for government officials or others involved in making decisions about policies affecting walkability. AARP also has a couple of toolkits, one for individuals and another for people who might be interested in leading a larger community effort around walkability. These tools and more are great ways to get an idea of how walkable your area is and what could potentially be improved to encourage walking. Youth development programs (like 4-H or scouting organizations), community groups, and neighborhood groups are examples of groups that might be interested in assessing the walkability of their area. After that, consider getting involved with local leaders or local government to see if there are efforts going on in your area to improve walkability!

Even if you aren’t sure you are ready for a full walkability assessment, stay connected with Walktober! There will be local events (more information about those will be on the Walktober website) and Walkinars where community leaders, experts, and other officials will cover a variety of topics related to walking and pedestrian safety. You can register for the walkinars here! We hope you will get involved and enjoy everything Walktober has to offer!

Women’s Health: Putting a Halt on Gaining Weight Over 40

Recently, several of my female friends who are over 40 noticed they gained weight in the last few years. After a visit to their healthcare provider and finding out that the weight gain was probably not just related to hormones, I was the next one they called, their friend, the Registered Dietitian. My friends assumed I could provide them with a ‘magic bullet diet’ that could melt away 10 pounds quickly. 

Instead, I deliver the news that as we mature our metabolism decreases and how our body stores fat changes. Also, there is no ‘magic bullet diet’ for losing weight quickly that is healthy and can be maintained. In fact, diets in general don’t work; however, having healthy behaviors (diet and physical activity) can promote weight loss, and are easier to maintain than restrictive diets. 

Here are some of the tips I shared with my friends for slimming down after 40.

1. Eat more plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables. These colorful powerhouse foods are low in calories, full of nutrients, and high in fiber which provides satiety or ‘a feeling of being full’, and therefore, you will eat less calories. Add some whole grain-rich foods for an added boost of fiber.

2. Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast. ‘Breaking the fast’ with a morning meal will jump start your metabolism and burn more calories. Eating breakfast will also prevent that mid-morning hunger which may cause you to eat something that is high in calories. Eating small meals frequently is also a good option for keeping your appetite in check throughout the day.

3. Consider the timing of your meals. There is some evidence that consuming most of your calories by mid-afternoon (before 3 p.m.), may help drop some pounds as opposed to eating a big dinner meal or heavy snacks in the evening. Regardless, it matters what you eat. To reduce calories, make it a habit to choose lower calorie options of the foods you enjoy. 

4. Cooking methods matter. Pay attention to the way you prepare food. Instead of frying food or cooking it in butter or oil, try grilling, baking, or broiling. Do the same at good restaurants too; skip foods that are fried or that come in creamy sauces. 

5. Get moving! Aim for 150 minutes of physical activity each week and schedule it! Make sure it’s on your weekly calendar, and ask a friend to join you. Having an ‘activity partner’ will keep you both motivated.  Also, mix up the activities and your partners. I run with one friend, bike with another and take a fitness class with yet another friend. It’s a great way to socialize and get those weekly minutes in. 

Don’t be hard on yourself. Accept that your body and metabolism is changing and embrace your ‘maturity’. This could be a great opportunity to revisit your health behaviors and really focus on your health for the next 40 years (or more).

For more weight loss tips and information about women’s health issues, check out these websites:

Get Moving with Cycling

Lately, I feel like I have been seeing bicycles everywhere and hearing about them much more often than I had in the past. For me, it started last summer when my husband suggested that he and I get bicycles as a way to stay active despite COVID-19 closures that meant we weren’t able to do some of our other favorite activities. We began looking for bicycles and quickly learned that we weren’t the only people looking to hop on the bike. New bicycles were in short supply and it took weeks of searching available used bicycles to find ones that would work for us. 

Almost a year later, bicycles are still in high demand! My hometown of Hagerstown, Md has been hosting bike races and the Olympics feature a variety of cycling events. So, I decided to spend a little time talking about bicycling. Why do people enjoy it so much? What do you need to consider if you want to get into cycling or biking? 

Let’s start with why cycling is so popular, especially right now. For some people who live close enough to their workplace, cycling is a quick and physically active way to commute to work. It can be a great way to build physical activity into a daily routine. But, for people who can’t bike to work, there are still reasons to start cycling! For me, it has been a fun way to explore my local area. Last fall, I got to spend an afternoon biking around Antietam National Battlefield and found out it was a great way to experience historical areas. 

Physically, cycling can also be a great way to be active without putting as much pressure on your joints as you might when jogging or running. For some people, that can mean that cycling is a great way to increase physical activity without joint pain. Otherwise, cycling has many of the same benefits that other forms of physical activity have (like improving your cardiovascular health). 

So what do you need to think about before jumping on the bike? Well, first, like with many other exercise programs, you’ll want to check with your doctor to make sure your health will allow you to start engaging in this type of physical activity. Then, you’ll want to check out the laws in your area. Some places have different rules about where you need to ride and what type of safety equipment you need to have (although even if your area doesn’t require a helmet, it is always a good idea to wear one anyway). You can even check out bicycle safety information from the National Safety Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Finally, you’ll need to figure out where you want to ride! You can go online and search for bike trails in your area. In Maryland, you can check out this website to find information on available bike trails in your area. 

So, if you are thinking about getting into bicycling for the first time, it might be challenging to find a bike at the moment (although it might be a little easier to find a used bike rather than a new one). If you have a bike or manage to find one, then I encourage you to get out and hit the road or trail for a fun way to be active!