How to eat well and exercise as we age

As an author of seven books and a therapist specializing in treating people with eating and weight concerns for over three decades, I’m often asked what to eat and what kind of exercise to do in order to lose weight. This is the moment when I explain that I’m neither a dietician nor a physical trainer. In fact, I tell people, my expertise is in eating psychology, which is about the why and how of eating, not the what of it.

So, in writing about eating and exercise as we age, I won’t be advising you on what foods are the most nutritious or which fitness routines will get and keep you in tip-top shape. However, what I have to say is key to whether or not you will eat well and stay fit, because I’m going to teach you how to get and remain motivated to nourish and take great care of your body. Knowledge is, after all, of little value if you are unable to put it to good use.

Unfortunately, many people who wish to become healthier set forth with many of the same erroneous myths and beliefs they’ve had their whole lives which, in fact, have not led to sustaining success. What we learned in our childhoods and along the way about how to succeed wasn’t based on cutting edge science. And what most of us learned about our senior years was that it was a time to give up, give in, and gently surrender to our biological clocks. Fortunately, that’s hardly how we’re taught to view aging now.

To begin putting myths to rest, let’s begin with exercise. The first myth is that if you’re not dragging yourself out to regularly walk or hit the gym, you’re lazy. In my three decades of clinical practice, I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s truly lazy. I have, however, met people who harbor mixed feelings about exercise for various reasons. Here’s what I’ve heard:

  • I never had to exercise, I was so busy working two jobs or chasing my kids around. My body was plenty active.
  • I wouldn’t know where to start. I don’t have money to pay for a trainer and I’m afraid of hurting myself. I don’t want to over do it at my age.
  • I wasn’t very active for most of my life and have no idea what I’d enjoy. I see people playing golf or pickle-ball and don’t want to invest time and money, if I’m not sure I’m going to like it.
  • I hate exercising alone. I used to bike ride and go hiking with my spouse, but since he (or she) died, I just can’t face doing these things by myself.

The truth is that most of us have mixed feelings about many things and must resolve our ambivalence if we are to move forward. So, rather than tell yourself that you can’t do something to get your body moving, reflect on what’s stopping you. Moreover, instead of badgering yourself into action, gently examine your internal barriers. Write down the pros and cons of exercise, ask friends or family what they like and dislike about certain activities, talk with your doctor about which activities would benefit your body at your age and with your health problems or, seek out short-term psychotherapy or life coaching to get you unstuck.

A second myth is that you need to be an expert at whatever you try doing. I take two dance classes—tap and jazz—every week and, living in Sarasota, Florida, both have their share of senior citizens. Two women in their 70s who had never tapped before started out as beginners and are now in public dance productions (including free cruises because they’re the entertainers!), while I, who have tapped on and off (mostly off) since I’m six-years-old, remain an advanced beginner. Who cares? We’re all having a blast.

A third myth is that you’re too large or out of shape to show your body in public—swimming in a community pool, going to a gym, bike riding, or taking local tai chi or chi gong classes. I have several higher weight clients and friends my age who ice skate, ride horses, and play pickle ball. And there are women in my dance classes on the higher end of the weight spectrum who seem to be having a grand old time along with the rest of us. An additional plus is how beneficial learning new dance steps is for the aging brain.

According to experts, one of the best things about growing older is not caring so much about what people think. We recognize what’s important and have less to prove to others. We already know our strengths and challenges, so we don’t need to worry so much about embarrassing ourselves. Paradoxically, what I find with aging clients is that as they become more fearless, they often regret how frightened they were of making fools of themselves when they were younger and how much time they wasted fretting about what people might think of them. They know that this stage of life is their final shot at ditching their fears and enjoying a “who cares?” attitude.

Now, onto eating better which is a complex subject. It may include eating more healthfully and nutritiously or engaging in less mindless or emotional eating. Either way, here are some myths which may be preventing you from reaching your goals.

The first eating myth is that you’re too old to learn to eat better. The fact is, at least in my private practice, older people do just as well changing their behavior as do younger people. In fact, they often do better because they know themselves more intimately and are wiser, that is, they know what works and what doesn’t. They recognize that weight-loss diets more often than not have put more regained weight on them than if they’d never dieted in the first place. They know that they’re not willing to forgo foods they love or view themselves as “bad” for eating them. And, many have fears about their health, which provides urgency to improve their eating sooner rather than later.

The second myth is that you need to be hard on yourself in order to develop a positive relationship with food. That is the absolute antithesis of the truth. The fact is that self-compassion works far better than berating ourselves to help us attain and maintain our goals, eating and otherwise. Most seniors are all too happy to give up a “just say no” or a “no pain, no gain” approach to self-care. We’ve been there and done that and know that it doesn’t work in the long run. Our wisdom tells us that it’s okay to be nice to ourselves, treat ourselves kindly, and be our own cheerleaders after a lifetime of cheerleading and caring for others.

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1 Comment

  1. Trevor Perkes

    March 2, 2018 at 4:29 am

    With some background more in the science end of fitness and nutrition, I find your comments quite refreshing and probably more effective for folks trying to improve their quality of life as compared to focusing on one or two hard core fitness or health guidelines. In fact, I am an avid believer that by doing some simple things that great things can come to pass and especially as they do to see the principle of success begets success come onto play.

    I particularly enjoyed your comments on how our perspective changes as we age and adopt the “could care less about what others think of me” but rather really start to enjoy life the way it is meant to be.

    Finally, if we all could see ourselves as our creator sees and views us, then we would act in ways that would bring more joy into our lives and into the lives of those around us.

    Thanks for your insightful comments and continue the good battle of helping others.

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