Exercise doesn't need to be heart-thumping or leave you bathed in sweat to be effective. Gentle forms of exercise, including some types of yoga, tai chi, swimming, walking and even exercises performed while seated in a chair, can do a lot to maintain or improve your health.
"Years ago, people with arthritis or other types of chronic pain were often advised to rest," says Dr. Jonathan Chang, an orthopedic surgeon in Alhambra, Calif. "Today, we know that being active helps you manage many forms of pain while lowering the risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol as well as diabetes. Gentle exercise also can enhance your mood, boost your energy level and help you maintain a healthy weight."
Hatha yoga is one form of gentle exercise that many doctors recommend. Although yoga may seem like a new trend, it's been around for thousands of years. The word yoga comes from the ancient Sanskrit language of India and describes bringing together the mind, body and spirit. Hatha yoga involves a series of specific poses done while controlling your breathing. Many poses are done while sitting down. Yoga increases flexibility while improving strength, balance and stamina. Many people who regularly practice yoga say that it reduces stress and even enhances mental clarity.
"I walk daily, do yoga and practice deep breathing," says Elinor Spalten, 77, of Smyrna, Ga., who is active in local politics, volunteers at the Atlanta Botanical Garden and spends time with her grandchildren. "Regular exercise helps me control my blood pressure and cholesterol levels without medication," she adds.
Tai chi (pronounced tie-CHEE) also is an ancient practice. It began in China as a form of self-defense. In tai chi, you perform a series of movements in a slow sequence with each movement flowing into the next. Like yoga, tai chi is noncompetitive and increases stamina, flexibility and muscle strength. Research has shown that tai chi also improves sleep, slows bone loss in post-menopausal women and improves all-around physical function.
Swimming is another form of gentle, low-impact exercise. Swimming takes stress off your joints, thanks to water's buoyancy. When immersed in water up to the waist, the body bears only 50 percent of its weight; in neck-deep water, the weight load is 10 percent. Swimming strengthens all major muscle groups as well as the cardiovascular system. You don't need to set an Olympic record to reap the benefits. Paddle as you please or use a kickboard.
If you don't know how to swim or don't enjoy it, try walking in water. Start in waist-deep water and walk one length of the pool. Depending on how you feel, walk another lap. Over time, build up to the number of laps that's right for you.
"Varying your exercise routine keeps it from getting dull," Spalten suggests. "Often, I walk in a nearby park to admire the pond and trees. If the weather is too hot or cold, there is an indoor track at the local Y. Some mornings, I head for a nearby mall that's almost empty early in the day."
Take a Seat
You can exercise even if confined to a chair. Chair exercise can include leg lifts; leg, shoulder, wrist and arm circles; easy stretches; and head swings. Some programs include light weights, scarves or music.
Before starting any kind of exercise program, check with your health care professional, especially if you have a health problem or have been sedentary for a while.
"When starting to exercise, take it easy at first, working up as your body permits," Chang advises. "Begin with stretching to prepare your body. Fifteen minutes of gentle stretching first thing in the morning can reduce or even eliminate many kinds of muscle and back pain."
You can find gentle exercise classes at many health clubs, YMCAs and other organizations. Or, check out some of the instructional videos and DVDs available from libraries, video stores or via the Internet.
Exercise at the time of day that works best for you. Experiment by exercising at different times to see when your energy is at its peak. Enlist an exercise buddy. This can be a great motivator as a "date" to exercise makes you more likely to do it. To reap the rewards of exercise, you need to do it regularly — ideally, several times a week.
Set goals but keep them realistic. Whatever goal you choose, reward yourself when you reach it.