Healthy Aging: Know the Facts

By John Sandgren, MD
John Sandgren is a recent Evolve grad and a member of the Vital Aging Network’s Wellness 50+ Design Team. We are pleased to have his contribution to our knowledge base about how to age well.

Dec 142014

This is the seventh of a series related to physical fitness entitled: Think of Exercise as a Pill that Promotes Long Life and a Whole Lot More.

Two elderly women doing muscle exercises with weights in gym.One key to successful exercise is listening to your body. With awareness and experience comes the ability to recognize important signals. You’ll recognize and appreciate the healthy discomfort of well-used muscles, tendons, and ligaments. You’ll be able to distinguish it from the unhealthy discomfort of misuse which says back off or change what you’re doing.

Few pleasures exceed the gratifying sensations a strong, healthy, flexible body and being aware of these sensations will help you stay motivated. Let me share a personal story. Twenty years ago, after regularly exercising several times weekly for about 1 year, I suddenly noticed one afternoon as I exited from the gym into cool weather how pleasantly warm my muscles felt. My muscles distinctly felt like a warm blanket around me. I had never noticed such a feeling before and it was so invigorating that I remember the moment to this day!

Listening to your body is vitally important, and perhaps nowhere more important than when doing physical chores necessitated by Mother Nature. Think for a moment about things like snow shoveling, garden digging, gutter clearing, or house painting. In Part 6, I could have facetiously labeled these chores a fifth area of exercise, but humor is out of place here. It’s deceptively easy and dangerous to let Mother Nature dictate how hard to exert yourself, so be mindful of your body. Granted, you can limit the size of your garden or take days and weeks to clean out your gutters, but snow shoveling is different. You simply can’t get the car out of the garage until all the driveway is sufficiently cleared.

Snow shoveling is vigorous or near-vigorous activity and multiple studies have demonstrated that lifting snow, particularly wet, heavy snow, puts people at risk for heart attacks – especially sedentary people. The risk is not high, mind you, but it is there, and in addition, a subset of people may be vulnerable to heart attacks in cold temperatures. 1 Physical fitness offers substantial protection from shoveling-induced heart attacks, even for individuals with known coronary heart disease.

Listening to your mind and your thoughts is a second key to successful exercise. If you’re finding it hard to stick to a regular exercise program, cognitive behavioral psychology – the science of how attitude, perceptions, and self-image influence changes in behavior – may help. I offer here in italics some concepts from cognitive behavioral advocates. Many of the points here come from an insightful blog Christy Matta, MA wrote about dieting and losing weight. 2 Her advice could apply equally well to keeping up an exercise program.

To accomplish behavioral change, set specific, realistic goals. Overly ambitious goals can be discouraging. Surround yourself with people who will encourage your efforts. Valuable assistance can come from people in similar circumstances who have made the changes you want to make. Use a buddy system or join a group from church, health club, work, or community. Get regular feedback from your buddy(ies) on progress. [But don’t use their techniques for weight lifting. Remember Part 6?] You can use peers or lay health advisors to help tailor your program to your cultural beliefs, values, language, literacy, and customs.

Look at the way you think about yourself. Is your self-image setting up barriers? If you start a program with the expectation that you will fail, you greatly reduce your chances for success. What do you think your ability is to make the changes you want? The best way to improve your belief in that ability is to actually have some success in reaching specific goals.

When you self monitor, you begin to notice barriers and challenges to changing your behavior. Too often we rely on negative self-judgment to motivate us and in so doing, fail to see real barriers to change. Self monitoring requires that, rather than beating yourself up for not reaching a goal, you attend to your own individual experiences.

Christy Matta goes on to say, some employers now offer low-priced, onsite fitness facilities for exercising. Others offer cash. To that I would add that some health insurers offer incentives like gift cards or health-club-membership discounts when you exercise regularly, and some offer insurance premium discounts.

Cognitive behavioral experts will warn you, declining adherence to a program of change typically occurs at 4 to 6 months. I will personally attest that exercise can lose its shine and feel humdrum, particularly when I lose sight of a meaningful goal and competing interests or distractions threaten to interfere. Be on guard, and if something pulls you away from exercise, don’t get down on yourself. Instead, reflect on what this says about you and then take this new insight back to exercise, perhaps approaching it differently.

Read other entries in this seriesDownload a pdf of the entire Exercise as a Pill series.

John SandgrenJohn Sandgren is a recent Evolve grad and a member of the Vital Aging Network’s Wellness 50+ Design Team. We are pleased to have his contribution to our knowledge base about how to age well.



1 Thompson P, Franklin B, Balady G, et al. Exercise and Acute Cardiovascular Events, Placing the Risks into Perspective. A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism and the Council on Clinical Cardiology. Circulation 2007; 115:2358.

[2] Matta C. Cognitive Behavioral Strategies for Losing Weight that Work.