Dr. Bill Dorfman, a 64-year-old cosmetic dentist in Southern California, prides himself on looking years younger, a characteristic he attributes to good genes and a daily exercise regimen.
Three days a week he focuses on abs and core, the other days lifting light weights in high reps.
Dorfman says he got serious about working out after a lull during dental school when he found himself hurting a lot. That’s when he realized his physique had taken a back seat after years of working as a swimmer and gymnast in high school. “What I’ve found is the more you exercise, the better you feel,” he says.
Outside of the gym, he credits his daily “words with friends” habit of keeping his mind sharp. He also makes nightly dinner plans with several friends to keep in touch.
Dorfman’s Healthy Habits asserts that one key to a longer life is a fitness regimen—but it includes mental and emotional fitness, too.
“We really need to look at the lives of seniors through a holistic lens—if they are truly happy and healthy and whole,” says Dor Schooler, co-founder and CEO of Intuition Robotics and an expert on loneliness in the elderly.
Here are four ways to focus on total body fitness as you age.
An exercise for the body and the brain
Maintaining physical activity can prevent injuries and help the body heal faster when they do occur, plus it’s closely linked to good mental health and brain function.
Dr. Kirk Erickson, director of translational neurosciences at AdventHealth Central Florida, where he studies the plasticity and modifiability of brain systems, has found that physical activity is one of the best ways to maintain brain health throughout his life.
Erickson’s research shows that as we age, the brain shrinks, specifically the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory formation. Exercise can help maintain this part of the brain, and in some cases increase its volume. There’s a lot to learn about how and why this happens, but Erickson says the effects are better the longer you engage in these habits, so it’s a good idea to start small.
Of course you can still reap the benefits if you start later in life, he says. You may find that over time, you can recall memories and information more easily and have better executive function and a longer attention span when your brain is at its best, he says.
He recommends moderate exercise, such as walking, 5 days a week for 30 minutes.
Aside from walking, strength training helps combat age-related muscle loss, says Dr. Gary Small, chief of psychiatry at Hackensack Meridian Health, and can lead to longer life. In addition, balance exercises can help prevent slips and falls — a leading cause of injury in adults age 65 and older.
Jasmine Marcus, a physical therapist at Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca where she works with patients of all ages and levels of physical activity, recommends exercise if you’re new to it. She suggests starting with some type of group fitness class like Zumba—anything that gets your heart rate up. It also helps, she says, if you have a partner who holds you accountable.
Aim for mental fitness
Small also recommends doing activities that keep the brain in shape. One study showed that the simple act of reading articles online and researching topics on Google provides valuable mental stimulation. Doing crosswords, reading books, playing games, pursuing hobbies, and daydreaming sharpen the mind.
Managing stress is also an important part of maintaining mental fitness. Small says that just 10 minutes of meditation a day can improve mood and cognitive agility, rewire the brain and strengthen neural circuits.
“You don’t have to go to a retreat in Nepal or India to meditate, but you can learn the skills,” he says.
The US Surgeon General issued a warning this year about an epidemic of loneliness in the country, which is taking a toll on health. One study equated the lack of social contact with smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day. Other studies show that social connection reduces the risk of early death. Obviously, social and emotional fitness is key to aging well.
Schooler, whose company makes AI-powered social companions for aging adults with the goal of keeping them active and engaged, says major life changes, such as the death of a spouse, often lead to feelings of loneliness.
“This is quite a watershed moment,” he says. Suddenly, no one asked how you slept or what you had planned for the day. A similar problem occurs with asynchronous aging, where one spouse has a decline with dementia, for example. Schooler says other events such as retirement or sending children off to college may have similar effects on social well-being.
ElliQ, the robot companions Skuler makes, is one way to help seniors stay connected, but it encourages all people to maintain friendships and relationships with family members. He says volunteering can also add purpose and connection to your life.
Develop good sleep habits
There’s a myth that older people need less sleep as they age, but Dr. Jamie Zitser, advisor and scientific reviewer for Rise Science, says the reality is that sleep becomes more difficult with age. The result is that many seniors find themselves going to bed late and getting up early.
Humans are programmed to stay awake [hours] And you sleep 8 hours.” “The ability of older people to do that is diminishing, so they have to work a little bit harder at it.”
The causes of poor sleep can be both social and physical. We become more sensitive to sounds and temperatures as we age, says Zeitzer. So the garbage truck that never woke you up on its weekly commute may now wake you up at 6 a.m., he says. Likewise, a bedroom that is too hot or too cold can make it difficult to sleep.
As we age, we also become more sensitive to caffeine. So if you used to drink a cup of coffee in the evening, you may find that you now have trouble falling asleep after hours.
There is also a major shift that happens once you retire as social restrictions around sleep are suddenly lifted. Older adults who do not have early morning social commitments may find that they are less inclined to sleep at the usual hours. Daytime naps, for example, may “eat their sleep at night,” says Zeitzer.
Older adults, Zeitzer adds, may find that sleeping too short or having a broken night’s sleep can lead to severe cognitive problems the next day. Long-term lack of sleep is linked to health conditions including depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.
A good routine can solve some sleep problems. To start, avoid caffeine later in the day. And know that you are adjusting the temperature in your sleep environment to encourage rest.
He recommends finding a way to relax before bed. While some experts caution against using electronics before you close your eyes, Zeitzer says watching a TV show can be beneficial if it means you feel more relaxed and ready for bed afterwards.
“It’s always good to aspire to close your eyes and fall asleep, but other people need more of a calming type of procedure,” he says.