by Anthony R. Leone

We all know that exercise is important. Among other things, it can stave off illnesses, reduce stress and help control weight. Whether we are 20 or 80 years old, we all have days, maybe weeks, and sometimes months, when we do not want to exercise. We are tired. We are sick. We are overwhelmed. There are not enough hours in the day for the number of excuses we can conjure up to avoid exercise and ultimately not take care of ourselves.

As we enter middle age and beyond, exercise only becomes more important to our health and well-being. Research shows that low physical fitness is a key risk factor associated with cardiovascular disease and other age-related conditions. Exercise can improve both physical and mental health, and mitigate the consequences associated with aging.

In fact, research now demonstrates that a fitness regimen can stave off the onset of dementia. One study looked at 191 women between the ages of 38-60 years. Researchers tested their physical fitness using a bicycle and separated them into groups – low fitness, medium fitness and high fitness. The women were then followed over a 44-year period to monitor the development of dementia. James Leverenz, M.D., of Cleveland Clinic did not take part in the study, but commented on it: “What they found was that those in the high fitness group had a later onset of dementia, by about nine years compared to the low fitness group and by about five years when compared to the medium fitness group.” Dr. Leverenz went on to say, “The main message is that people should be physically active as much as they can be.” Dr. Leverenz continued, “You don’t have to be a marathon runner, but the more physical activity you get, the more likely it is you’ll fight off some of the effects of aging and dementia.”

Other research reveals that men also have similar benefits of exercise as a preventative tool for dementia. One study followed 45,078 men and 14,811 women, ages 20-88 at baseline, for an average of 17 years. All participants completed a preventive health examination at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas over the years 1970-2001. Fitness levels were measured. The study concluded that greater fitness was associated with lower risk of mortality from dementia in men and women.

With a clear link between exercise and long-term health, it’s clear that fitness matters. But how do we make it part of our lives, even when time and life demands get in the way? Here are some tips to make it happen.

Schedule it
Whether you are early in your career, in the heat of child rearing years or slowing down your career, having an exercise schedule is an effective way to build the habit. The key is determining what is best for you. While many of us think that early morning workouts are best, research shows that the same benefits exist with workouts later in the day too. Some people prefer early mornings, others lunchtime and others later in the day, but the key is to find a schedule that works for you. It is also important to be flexible and understand that sometimes getting in exercise may not be at your ideal time or your ideal workout.

Something is better than nothing
While exercising for an hour 5 days a week may be a great idea for some, that’s impractical at times for most of us. If you cannot get to the gym, do something at home. Instead of skipping exercise entirely, walk briskly for 10 minutes or stretch for 20 minutes. These are just examples but anything that promotes physical movement on a regular consistent basis helps.

The benefits of exercise are not based on high intensity workouts. Working in the garden, walking nine holes of golf, hiking or swimming all do the job. Variety is particularly important if you do not like the gym environment.

Finally, the role of diet in conjunction with fitness remains important. They are not mutually exclusive. There are many fad diets out there, but a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, healthy grains and protein will work well for most people. It may seem difficult to build the healthy fitness habits, but believe in yourself and start with a simple, easily attained goal. The long-term benefits are proven and well worth it.