First let’s establish the essential components of physical fitness. As we get older, the definition of physical fitness most relevant for us is “the ability to carry out daily tasks with vigor and alertness, without undue fatigue, and with ample energy to enjoy leisure-time pursuits and to meet unforeseen emergencies” USDHHS. So this isn’t about what you can lift at the gym; instead, it’s about retaining your mobility and mental competence. And from my perspective, the goal or purpose of fitness isn’t necessarily “to get ripped,” although that’s fine, it’s more about laying a foundation to purposefully care for your body and mind so you age with as much grace and enjoy as much life as possible.
Fitness is commonly segmented into five main components:
- Body composition
- Cardio-respiratory endurance
- Muscular strength
- Muscular endurance
Today we’ll look at the first 2, but keep in mind: ideally, you want to cultivate all five components together.
Body composition refers to the relative amount of muscle, fat, bone, and water in your body. Ideally, your appropriate body fat composition should be, for women, 24% or less, and for men, 17% or less.
Why? Maintaining healthy weight dramatically reduces your risk for a variety of diseases and increases your longevity (1). Additionally, having a healthy weight helps you to feel good about yourself, and gives you more energy to enjoy life.
How? The science is in, folks. How much we eat makes effects our weight more than the amount of exercise we get. As you’ll hear me say over and over, eat a diet of fresh, whole foods, consisting mostly of fruits and vegetables.
Cardio-respiratory endurance is the ability to sustain physical activity, or do something like sustained rapid walking, swimming, bicycling, jogging, etc.
Why? Activities that bring oxygen to your muscles will increase your energy levels and make your body more functional, efficient, and improve your longevity (2).
How? Improved cardio-respiratory endurance comes from activities that keep your heart rate elevated at a safe level for a sustained length of time such as walking, swimming, or bicycling. The activity doesn’t need to be strenuous to be effective. Start slowly with an activity you enjoy, and gradually work up to a more intense pace.
Muscular strength is the amount of force your muscles can exert in a single effort.
Why? Being strong is practical, and keeps you in control of your own life. Strength helps reduce the risk of injuries, improves longevity (3, 4), and reduces the likelihood of many diseases. The earlier you get to it, the better.
How? Your muscles get stronger from resistance, whether that’s from weights or gravity. If you want to gain muscle strength, try exercises such as lifting weights or rapidly taking the stairs.
Muscular endurance is the ability of the muscle to continue to perform without fatigue.
Why? Having muscular endurance allows you to do regular activities with ease, reduces risk of injury, and enables you to last longer while exercising – so, think about going for a longer walk on the beach, or in the mountains.
How? Improve your muscle endurance with activities like walking, jogging, bicycling, or dancing.
Flexibility is the range of motion around a joint.
Why? Since flexibility tends to deteriorate with age, it’s important to incorporate regular stretching into your fitness program, especially since good flexibility reduces injuries. Additionally, as a good friend of mine used to say, “longer muscles are stronger muscles.”
How? To improve flexibility, include activities that lengthen the muscles such as swimming or a basic stretching program.
While the above 5 components of physical fitnesss are commonly considered the most important, as we age, balance and coordination are increasingly important. Older people commonly get injured by falling down. Balance and coordination help to prevent that. Standing on one leg is a great way to improve balance. Try brushing your teeth in the shower standing on one leg and switching legs every 30 seconds. If that's too easy for you, notch it up: try it with your eyes closed. Just be careful!!! 🙂
Last word: weight training is the best exercise to strengthen your bones. 45 minutes, 3 times per week.