For the first time in 10 years, the U.S. government has updated its Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. While the basic recommendations for adults haven’t changed, there are some key takeaways in the new exercise guidelines that older adults should know. 

If you’re in your 50s and early 60s, don’t think you’re off the hook. While the guidelines define “older” as 65 and up, people of any age can benefit from heeding the guidelines.

“Exercise keeps muscles strong,’’ says Sterling Ransone Jr., a doctor affiliated with American Academy of  Family Physicians who practices in Deltaville, Va..

Start now, he says, and you’ll do better as you age. Think of it as that ounce of prevention you might need 20 years from now.

“If you get into good habits, you’ll keep your muscles strong and lessen your chance of a fall,” he says. 

That last point is key.

Fear of falling

Topping the list of new recommendations is an emphasis on balance training. The 2008 guidelines recommended balance exercises for older adults who are at risk of falling. 

The new guidelines expand that recommendation to all older adults, not just those who might stumble.

Why?

“Falls are a significant problem and a significant hardship in older adults,” says Hallie Zwibel, a doctor of osteopathic medicine and director of the Center of Sports Medicine at the New York Institute of Technology.

Falls can lead to fractures and other injuries that can require long recovery times and, sometimes, hospitalization or surgery. And as you age, falls can be increasingly serious. 

“When you look at folks who are much older—in their mid-80s—if they break a hip there’s a 50% chance they won’t be alive in a year,” says Ransone.

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Build better balance

Balance training doesn’t have to be another thing tacked on to your to-do list. You can work it into the exercising you already do. Whenever you’re moving and you’re not in a static position or on a stable surface, you’re improving your balance. 

For example, if you do squats, you can squat on a balance beam or a half ball instead of on the floor. If you run, choose an incline or decline, or run on uneven terrain to boost your balance. 

Not already exercising? Try walking backwards, with a hand on the kitchen counter for stability. Or, alternate standing on one foot.

Other exercise helps too

“Physical activity by itself helps reduce falls and problems related to falls,” Zwibel says. 

That’s because when you aren’t exercising you’re weaker and more easily fatigued.

“If you take an awkward step and you’re not used to engaging the associated muscles, you’re more likely to suffer a fall,” Zwibel says. 

Weight-training exercises are important, too. They help maintain your bone strength so if you do fall, you’re less likely to suffer a fracture.

Not convinced?

Maybe you’re not afraid of falling. Physical activity is good for your health in lots of other ways, too. All these health benefits of exercise are new to the 2018 guidelines:

It helps reduce your risk of cancers. Cancers of the bladder, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, stomach, and lung are now on the growing list of cancers that exercise can help prevent. 

It makes your brain healthier. It reduces the likelihood of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, improves cognition, cuts the risk of anxiety and depression, helps you sleep better, and improves quality of life. 

It lowers the odds that you will gain excessive weight.

It helps you live better if you have chronic health conditions like osteoarthritis, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.

Meeting the minimum

Like before, the guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes a week of moderate activity, 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity, or a combination of the two. This video gives an example of the kinds of activities that can add up to the weekly movement you need. 

If you aren’t active, those numbers might seem out of reach. “Don’t be intimidated. These numbers are the goal,” Ransone says. “Any exercise is good. Start low and slowly work up to get closer to your goal.”

There’s one other key change in the latest recommendations—the 2008 guidelines promoted exercising for at least 10 minutes at a time. 

That’s no longer the case. Now, you can get credit for every little bit of exercise. If you take a flight of stairs, or walk from your car to your office, it all counts toward your 150-minute goal. 

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