Conscious Aging: Fitness as an Older Person

Fitness as an older person is a tricky thing, with a need to balance how hard you stress your physical strength and cardiovascular capacity against the need to avoid injury. Ligaments strain more easily, and once strained take longer to recover. Joints take longer to warm up. Older people with hip or knee or ankle pain sometimes simply can’t do exercise that involves stressing those joints, and not everyone has access to a pool or the desire to get into one. Cardio capacity in one sport or activity doesn’t translate as quickly to cardio capacity in another.

The fitness industry has proclaimed 10,000 steps a day as the goal for a person who wants to be fit. That goal has been adopted by the American Heart Association. For most people, depending on stride, 10,000 steps is about five miles of brisk walking.

There are a couple of real problems with the 10,000 step a day goal. One is that it may be absolutely daunting to a sedentary person of any age who can’t imagine walking around the block, never mind covering five miles. The other is that five miles of exercise, if done as a block, takes time, perhaps as much as 90 minutes. If you exercise at a gym and have to get there, change, work out, and get back, that’s a big chunk out of a working day. Lots of people who use a Fitbit or other tracker combine designated exercise with whatever walking they need to do in the course of their  job.

According to the Guardian of London, the 10,000 step a day goal isn’t backed by much hard science. More or less might actually be better, or at least sufficient. And, that goal omits one really important factor: pace. The goal of exercise is to stress your body so that your capacity increases. Just puddling along, even for a lot of steps, doesn’t do all that much.  In the gym, for example, I work hard to maintain a 4 m.p.h. pace on the treadmill — a traditional hiking pace. That’s fast. I don’t think I reach that outside, and when I am striding along as fast as I can go, I’m more vulnerable to tripping on Seattle’s dreadfully cracked and uneven sidewalks. That’s what I was doing when I fell some weeks ago, giving myself one shredded knee and one bone bruise.

I do hold to the 10,000 steps a day goal, and feel better when I accomplish it. Certainly moving is better than being sedentary, and to accomplish the step goal I need to get out of the house and be with people. In Seattle’s gloomy winters, that’s an important daily practice.

I’m watching the WNBA — women’s professional basketball — championships, and I sigh with envy at the young women racing up and down the court for four intensive quarters. Elena Della Donne, a Washington Mystics superstar, is playing with a bone bruise like mine on her patella. Granted she got a lot of physical therapy and she’s playing with pain, but four days after my injury I couldn’t even go up and down stairs very easily. She’s running the court.

Those days of even approximating what a professional athlete can do are past for me. But I’m hoping, as I continue to age, to retain mobility and the capacity to exercise. Fitness matters, whether I can always hit that 10,000 steps a day goal or not.

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