Barbara Perry of Minneapolis plays tennis three times a week, golfs twice a week, and walks 2 or 3 miles every day. And, when it fits into her schedule, she tops off her evening with some ballroom dancing.

At 88 years old, Perry considers herself lucky to be able to do so much. But research indicates that Perry has created her own good fortune by staying active.

"Disability is more a matter of disuse than age," said Dr. Ralph Bovard of Minneapolis, a preventive medicine physician who has a special interest in helping athletes of all ages maintain optimal performance.

Bovard's research shows that while the average person has 10 years of dependent living, those who maintain an active lifestyle can reduce that period to between one and three years.

While those numbers may not be well known, it's clear that more people are getting the message about staying active, said Mary Jacobson, a personal trainer at the YWCA of Minneapolis. Jacobson has seen an increase in clients in their 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s.

When working with older clients, Jacobson doesn't advise them to take up the latest fitness craze. She suggests a tried-and-true approach: "It's just like your mother told you when you were little," she said. "Get out and do something, and don't eat junk food. Those things never change."

Here are some of the ways Bovard and Jacobson say you can stay fit -- or get fit -- in your 50s and beyond.


Set goals. That'll help you stay in shape longer.

"Some 45- and 50-year-olds are as fast as the college kids in masters swimming," said Bovard. Even a fit 65-year-old can outperform a sedentary 25-year-old.

Watch your diet. Menopause and hormonal changes may necessitate lifestyle changes for women in their 50s, Jacobson said. "Diet can make a huge difference," she said, because your metabolism slows down after menopause with the decrease of certain hormones.

Don't work past pain. Some people who have been lifelong competitors start to see joint issues, Jacobson said, especially those who have focused solely on one sport. If you do have pain, take a proactive approach, she said, and seek out a personal trainer or physical therapist. "You need to find out the underlying reason," she said. Skipping strength-training, she said, can exacerbate the problem.

Put in the time. Regardless of your age, Bovard maintains the importance of spending five hours a week on exercise. "That's 3 percent of your alive time," he said. "Make it something valuable. It makes you feel better."


Mix it up. "Variety is good, especially as you age," said Jacobson. "Your body needs to be presented with something new in order to adapt. The more your brain is engaged, the more effective it's going to be, instead of going running and zoning out."

A combination of aerobic, cardiovascular and strength/balance exercises is essential in this decade to maintain total body well-being.

Push it. "It's OK to feel out of breath," Jacobson said. Getting your heart rate up can make some people feel vulnerable, but she reassures her clients that they can get past slower speeds, and that their breathless feelings can increase their ability to handle intensity.

Intensity is essential, agreed Bovard. Forget what you've heard about fat-burning zones, he said. "The reality is, it's much faster to deplete sugars and burn fat if you're going hard."


Focus on technique. That's an area of fitness in which you can always improve, regardless of age. Work toward a personal record in a sport you're trying to master, for example.

Go for balance. Continue to work on joint stability, cross-training and balance. If you can prevent falls, you can avoid some serious injuries, said Bovard.

Consider your medications. Keep your personal trainer up to date on your medications, Jacobson advised. In some people, joint pain can be an issue if you're on cholesterol medications, for example.


Get back on the horse. If you do get injured, make sure to find a way back to your fitness regime. "Too many people go to physical therapy and then when it's over, that's it," Jacobson said.

Expand your horizons. You don't have to go to a gym to stay fit. Jacobson encourages her clients to incorporate fitness into their everyday lives: Stretch while you're putting laundry away, stand on tiptoes while doing the dishes, take the stairs rather than the elevator.

Have fun. Sign up for a group fitness class, such as masters swimming or Pilates. Group classes double as social outlets. If you prefer solo sports, find a fitness partner who will drag you to the gym when you'd rather stay home. And do physical activities you enjoy: "Make it your playtime," Bovard said. "No one is ever too old."

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.

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