Staying Fit and Healthy in Your Golden Years: Nutrition and Exercise Tips for Seniors
With aging comes a greater risk of health problems, and the truth is that if you’re not living a very healthy lifestyle, your risk increases substantially.
No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to make a change to your diet and your level of activity. Eating right and getting some exercise can do wonders for your confidence, energy levels, and both mental and physical health.
Energy Balance: Avoiding Weight Gain with the Right Number of Calories
As people get older, we sometimes get a little less active overall. Our bodies and metabolisms also change in more subtle ways, which can affect how fat is stored and deposited on our bodies. Over time, avoiding excessive weight gain becomes harder, but even more important than it was when you were younger.
Being overweight or obese can reduce your longevity, and make you more prone to serious health problems like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
There have been many, many weight loss products and fads over the years. A lot of advice conflicts with other advice. People were told for years that “fat is bad,” as fats are calorically dense. But then low carb diets got popular, and conventional wisdom reversed on that. It’s hard to tell what’s true, and what’s just some salesman trying to get you to buy a product.
While nutrient balance is very important — including macronutrients like protein and fats — the biggest issue with weight gain itself is caloric intake.
Calories are a measure of energy. Food contains useable energy, in the form of things your body can break down and use. Activity uses that energy — even when you’re asleep, your body uses energy, just substantially less of it.
When your energy intake — the number of calories you consume — is higher than your energy expenditure, your body will store that energy as fat.
Having some body fat is normal, especially for women. But too much of it causes negative health effects. The actual fat itself is not totally inert. It acts as an endocrine organ, affecting hormone levels, metabolism, and other processes in your body. An excess of body fat has many negative effects.
To prevent weight gain, or to lose weight, there are two things you need to do: eat less (in terms of energy content), and exercise. The first is more important than the second, though there are a lot of other reasons why you should stay active.
If you are overweight or obese — defined by a body mass index (BMI) over 26 or over 30, respectively — losing weight will benefit your health.
While you should always talk to your doctor before starting a diet and exercise program, there are things you can do on your own as well.
One thing you should do is start writing down what you’re eating. Don’t change your diet yet, just record it. You can use online resources to determine the caloric and nutritional content of the food you eat, which you should measure at this stage.
There’s a big chance you’ll find that you’ve been eating more than you thought you were — in terms not only of quantity, but of caloric density. Many foods are small and not very filling, but have a disproportionately high number of calories. For example, many Lil Debbie snack cakes — which are physically small — have up to 700 calories, basically an entire meal’s worth.
On the other hand, many healthier foods are satiating and nutritionally dense, but lower in calories. These are the foods that can help you lose weight — although too much of almost anything can still cause weight gain.
Some healthy foods are also very calorically dense, making it easy to eat too many of them. Nuts are a big offender in this category.
Your doctor can recommend medically sound weight loss programs for you, and can also refer you to a specialist like a registered dietician who can help you develop an appropriate meal plan.
“Good” and “Bad” Foods
As we’ve mentioned, you’ve probably heard a lot of conflicting advice about what foods are “good,” and which are “bad.” It feels like one minute, everyone’s saying eggs are bad for you. Then the next minute, they’re touted as some kind of miracle food.
Setting aside medically questionable fads, it’s true that some broad, general “types” of food are better for you than others. As you age, the food choices you make will become more important.
Some of the foods you should incorporate into your diet include:
- Vegetables. This is a pretty big category, of course. But on the whole, a diet heavy in minimally processed plant-based foods is recommended by physicians. Different vegetables have different mineral and vitamin content, and variety is important. Raw or steamed vegetables are low in calories, but high in nutrients and very filling. They can help you feel fuller longer, after eating fewer calories, helping you maintain a healthy weight.
- Whole grains. You’ll hear mixed things about this, as very low carb diets are in vogue right now. But for the most part, breads are fine, and the most nutritious options are whole grain. This means they use more parts of the seed, and have a higher mineral content.
- Fruits. As a natural source of sugar, fruit can satisfy your need for sweet flavors, while providing important vitamins. Whole fruit is preferable to fruit juice, as it has a higher fiber content and less overall sugar.
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy products. While not everyone likes dairy products, they’re a good source of calcium — a nutrient you need more of as you get older, due to weakening of bones over time. Fat-free and low-fat variants are lower in calories and cholesterol.
- Lean meats. If you aren’t vegetarian or vegan, lean meats are a great source of protein, without excessive trans fats that can be bad for your heart. Current thinking is that “white meats” — fish and poultry, primarily — are generally a healthier choice than red meats like beef, lamb, or pork. While occasional red meat is fine, it might not be optimal to eat beef every single day. There’s also some preliminary evidence that processed red meats like sausages may have adverse health effects, so those should be eaten in moderation.
- Nuts, seeds, and legumes. These types of plant-based foods are important non-animal sources of proteins and fats.
There are also some categories of food that you should approach with a lot of moderation, and should refrain from consuming too often.
- Sweetened beverages with high amounts of added sugars. This includes non-diet soft drinks like colas, but it also includes many kinds of beverages that may market themselves as vaguely “healthy.” Even pure fruit juice is very high in sugar, to the point that it isn’t nearly as good for you as just eating a piece of fruit.
- Foods with butter, shortening, lard, and other kinds of fat that are solid at room temperature. Fats and oils are both lipids, the same types of chemicals. Oils are liquid at room temperature, like olive oil or canola oil. These are usually better than butter or shortening, which are solid and contain types of fats that can have adverse cardiovascular effects if eaten too frequently.
- Wheat and grain products made from refined flour. White bread is made from refined and processed flour that lacks many of the nutrients found in whole grains.
For most people, the majority of necessary vitamins and minerals come from food. A genuinely healthy and balanced diet should account for most of these nutritional needs. However, seniors may sometimes need extra vitamin supplementation.
In particular, physicians generally recommend vitamin D supplements in seniors over sixty-five. Some people also benefit from B-complex supplements. For the most part, though, you should be able to get what you need from a comprehensive multivitamin.
Unless your physician recommends it, avoid Vitamin E and Vitamin A supplements. Too much of either of those can actually make you sick.
You don’t have to be a serious athlete to stay fit and healthy as you get older. Public health recommendations are actually fairly modest, recommending around thirty minutes of aerobic exercise a day.
Simply taking a walk every evening can help you get to the activity level your body needs to stay healthy, and avoid adverse health effects from being too sedentary.
When you get older, it becomes even more important to talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program. Health issues like heart disease can complicate your ability to tolerate cardiovascular exercise, and older individuals can be at a higher risk of accidental injury from intense exercise activities.
If you haven’t been active in a long time, you can change it by starting small. Don’t try too hard to push yourself your first time out — you’ll get frustrated, tired, and winded. Start with what you know you can do, and work up from there to more intense exercise.
Healthy Bodies Bring Longer Lives
As you get older, you become more susceptible to many different kinds of health problems. Good nutrition and occasional exercise are very important for your general overall health, and can help prevent the onset of many issues like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It can also help alleviate mood disorder symptoms like anxiety and depression.
If you feel like your lifestyle isn’t very healthy right now, it’s never too late to make a change. Talk to your doctor about changing your diet and getting active — it can greatly improve your ability to enjoy the rest of your life. Senior Care Center is here to assist in all your needs concerning your senior loved ones. To read more about senior health, visit our blog.