By Jim Riley

Contributing Writer

During my 55-year career of teaching movement and conditioning skills, I have become acutely aware both through personal experience and confirming research that we have a serious fitness problem in our country. It’s effecting our health, wallets, character and our energy.

Over the past several generations, each generation has become progressively less fit despite great improvements in medical care and increasing knowledge and research regarding health and fitness. It’s common knowledge that life is better when we’re reasonably fit, and we know more than ever how to become fit, but our fitness levels are on a downward trend.

Let me give you a personal example: When I began teaching in the fall of 1965 it took about three weeks to train the kids to perform at a level that met the rigors of our demanding program. We had on average two to three obese kids in a school of about 1,000 students.

At the end of my career, in the early 2000s, It took until Thanksgiving for the kids to reach the same level of fitness as their earlier cohort. We then had 20 to 30 percent obese kids at the beginning of the school year. I suspect the negative fitness trends have continued since I retired.

Of course, this column is about senior fitness, which has experienced a similar downward trend. Some people think senior fitness is an oxymoron, that we’re too old to improve fitness levels and we should just accept our continued decline and act like the old people we are.

Granted, there is a gradual decline in our abilities as we age, but not to the degree that often-quoted large-group statistics would indicate. For example, it is commonly reported that we will lose 10 percent of our muscle mass each decade from thirty years of age on. This statistic is accurate related to a large group of people of various levels of fitness and reflects the current trends in the U.S., but the statistic does not reflect what has to be.

There are numerous examples of active people who do not lose muscle mass at that rate. Many do some type of strength training and remain active through their senior years and they do far better at retaining muscle mass over their lifetimes.

The same may be said for cardiovascular health and bone density. Although there is decline, the rate of decline is far less in active people. The answer as to why is rather simple. The bottom line of all exercise theory is that the body will respond to the stress we put upon it. Put more simply: The body will respond to what we ask it to do.

If we are active, do sufficient cardio and strength training, our bodies will respond by becoming more fit. If we are inactive and ask little work from our body, it will respond to a lack of stress and become less fit.

Put another way, your body is fit to do what you ask of it. If your body isn’t fit, and you are otherwise healthy, you haven’t been asking enough of it. I’m sure most of you have had a friend go through cardio rehab. We have a cardio rehab center at our local hospital. Cardiologists prescribe the center to patients due to heart surgery or heart disease.

It is an exercise program to help the cardio system become more efficient as gradually increasing workloads are placed upon it. That’s how you become more fit, by gradually increasing your workloads. Many heart patients have achieved performance levels above the levels prior to diagnosis and surgery. If it works for heart patients, it will work for you.

What are the exercise recommendations for seniors to be fit?

The Department of Human Health Services recommends at least 150 minutes weekly of moderate aerobic activity such as walking, biking, swimming or active sports participation, plus two 30-minute strength-training sessions for large muscle groups.

The guidelines suggest this activity be spread out over the week. They also suggest shorter 10- to 15-minute spurts will also meet the guidelines.

These government recommendations are what I consider the formal part of your fitness activities. It’s what you do in the gym or outside to be healthy. It is important, but not as important as what I call your informal workout: What you do for the rest of the day.

Far too many people come to the gym for about an hour, three to four times weekly, and meet or exceed the government recommendations and feel they have met their fitness needs. They then go home and sit in front of the TV or computer and are inactive the rest of the day.

To be healthy, the body requires frequent movement throughout the day. These movements need not be intense. They may be gentle, simple movements, primarily on the feet, that help move blood through our arteries and fluid through the lymph system. It’s primarily by movement that nutrients are sent to our cells and waste is removed.

If you want healthy cells, frequent movement is a requirement. Think of movements such as walking about the house, doing hobbies, picking up stuff and reaching to put it away, mowing the lawn and working in the garden. Those types of movements burn calories, move nutrients, rid the body of waste and build some strength and mobility.

Remember the bottom line of all training: The body responds to what we ask it to do. If you want to be healthy, you need to move frequently throughout the day in a variety of motions.

Inactivity is the real enemy of fitness. To be fit, meet or exceed the government recommendations and move well and move often throughout the day.