Break Barriers and Start Moving
Don't let health issues prevent you from enjoying an active life. Many people with chronic conditions or injuries find ways to continue activities or find new ones.
When Group Health Cooperative member Georgie Brewer saw her new doctor for back pain, he looked at her MRI — which indicated arthritis, scoliosis, fractures, ruptures, and stenosis — and expressed surprise that she wasn't in a wheelchair or bedridden. In fact, Brewer walks one to two miles a day and is active in her community.
Member Jean Nokes-Ghivizzani plays tennis with her husband nearly every day, rides horses, and teaches horseback riding. She enjoys these sports even though she has had two back surgeries for arthritis and scoliosis, and has cardiac difficulties, a rod in one thigh, and bolts in a knee and hip.
These seniors know the importance of staying active, despite their health issues. But if you have any physical or mental limitations, you may find it difficult to follow their example. The first step is to identify any concerns you may have about starting an exercise program.
Begin by Recognizing Barriers
Even though movement is almost always beneficial, fear of worsening a chronic condition is one of the biggest deterrents to exercising, says Ben Betteridge, MD, a physician in Group Health's Activity, Sports, and Exercise Medicine Department. "Talk with your doctor for help in determining what kind of exercise you can do safely. If you're concerned, start with a gentle walking program, walk in a swimming pool, or ride a stationary bike."
Pain can be another barrier. Your doctor can help you manage pain effectively, whether through prescription medication, over-the-counter medication such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), or a topical treatment for painful joints or arthritis. If you have osteoarthritis in your knees or hips, you may also benefit from a cortisone injection.
A better way to think about exercise, though, may be to focus on what you can do rather than what you can't, says Dr. Betteridge. "Do what you enjoy. If you're always focused on how much it hurts, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Another reason you may avoid exercise is fear of losing your balance and falling, even though becoming physically strong and active can actually help prevent falls. After ruling out a health condition or medication as the cause of any unsteadiness, ask your doctor or physical therapist to recommend fall prevention tips and exercises.
Member Kurt Seiffert of Kirkland exercises despite an inner ear disturbance. "I don't sail, run, or play tennis anymore, but I walk, ride a stationary bicycle, go to exercise classes, and even ski with my grandchildren," he says. "You need to be flexible in your thinking, and keep doing things in spite of your condition.”
Perhaps the biggest barrier to exercise is habit, says Dr. Betteridge. "We have to carve out time to exercise so it's second nature, just like eating, taking a shower, or brushing our teeth. Start with easy steps. Take the stairs, not the elevator. Park farther away from your destination. Walk to the store or post office. Find fun activities and reward yourself — hopefully not with big calories."
Take Small Steps and Get Support
One of the keys to regular exercise is to set achievable goals that work for you. Don't like early mornings? Sign up for an afternoon exercise class. Don't like walking in the rain? Go to your local mall instead. Need a diversion? Read or watch TV while on a treadmill. If you have a tough time staying on course, invite your spouse or a friend to be your exercise buddy.
Seiffert and his wife walk daily, and four to five times a week drive to SilverSneakers classes. "It's easier for the two of us to go together than for either of us to do it alone," he says.
Member Chris Slach and her husband joined the Walk and Talk program at the Port Orchard clinic. She shattered both legs when hit by a car in the summer of 2011, and started using a walker after a hard year of physical therapy and yoga. "I needed a plan that I could commit to, and my husband helps me stay on task," she says.
Having a good support system offers another great benefit: Socializing boosts emotional and mental well-being.
Member Bob Hauck of Seattle continued exercising even while undergoing radiation therapy two years ago. "It's too easy to become reclusive, especially when you don't feel well," he says. "I struggled to keep up with my usual social events. If I didn't feel lively enough to do a whole round of golf, I did half a round. I found a lot of support through my friends."
When you begin, set small daily goals and increase your workouts gradually. The most important thing is to get moving.
Slach began her rehabilitation program on her neighbor's driveway, and then set larger goals such as finishing a Relay for Life fundraising event. "I knew I'd need my walker to get a quarter of a mile around the track, but I did it," she says.
Draw Courage From Within
In the end, the incentive to overcome physical limitations and lead an active life comes from within. "You can sit around and complain, or you can give it your best shot," says Brewer. "When it got tough, I thought about how badly I wanted to have as normal a life as possible," says Slach. "It's been a struggle, but each time I get up to walk, I feel so lucky."
"There is such joy in simply moving," says Nokes-Ghivizzani. "Pair that with the desire to be healthy, and you can do amazing things despite any physical difficulties."