It’s never too late to start exercising. The benefits can be numerous, even if you’re older and launching into physical activity for the first time.

In North Carolina, as many as one in four adults may fall in that category. In fact, up to 25% of North Carolina adults are physically inactive, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

Improving your cardiovascular health, bone and muscle strength and mental well-being can fend off health issues many older adults face. The key to exercise is to make it a lifestyle change and not a short-term fix, said Dr. Steven Potter, an orthopedic surgeon at Novant Health Orthopedics & Sports Medicine - Thomasville.

Dr. Steven Potter
Dr. Steven Potter
“For anyone starting, gradually work your way into whatever activity you’re beginning,” Potter said. He added that you should consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program.

Start with lower intensity activities (such as walking), in shorter time periods and gradually increase the intensity and time frame. Those can lead to higher impact activities.

“For example, if you’re sedentary, start with walking, then graduate to jogging and then running or jumping,” Potter said.

Don’t just look at the scale

Beginning an exercise program often results in an initial weight loss, but the number on your scale shouldn’t be the lone measure of success. Potter suggests looking at your conditioning level, and how your body has changed.

“Maybe set goal such as `I want to run this distance’ or `I want to jog this amount of time without taking a break to walk,’ “ he said.

Conquering the gym

Joining (or visiting) a gym can be intimidating for beginners. All those machines, which ones should I use? What’s the protocol? What are the correct weights and repetitions?
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Better health starts with finding the right doctor.

One near you

Potter suggests going with someone who maybe has done it some, and can walk you through it. Or, get one of the trainers at the facility to help you the first few times. They can introduce you to the machines or the gym overall.

“If you go to one gym and don’t like the atmosphere, try others,” Potter said. “Different gyms have different feels and clientele. Find the one that works for you. Just getting in there and doing something, in the long run, will benefit you.”

Later morning and early afternoon are often less hectic and more relaxed at many gyms.

Dealing with soreness and injury

Be aware of new aches and pains that you haven’t had that aren’t going away after a day or two of rest, Potter said. That’s often a sign of overuse injuries or stress-type injuries, like stress fractures.

“The scary ones are hip pain in the groin, or back pain that just aren’t going away with rest,” he said. “The other one we see often is foot fractures.”

Mix up your training

Cross-training is ideal, Potter said. In other words, mix it up.

“When you’re doing a little bit of everything, each activity has its own benefits. Cardio is good for your heart, lungs and overall general health. Most of the cardio, especially if you get into the jogging, will give you the additional benefits of strengthening your lower extremity muscles,” he said.

“High repetitions and low weights in strength training can teach the muscles and skeleton to distribute calcium where the bones may be weak, which can help avoid osteopathic fractures.”

Setting goals

It’s important to have reasonable expectations. It’s not normal or safe to try shedding 30 pounds in a month, or become a 100-miles-a-month runner after a few weeks of exercise.

Crash diets and increased activity increases the chances of osteopathic fractures, Potter said.

Eat a healthy diet. Have a healthy activity level,” he said. “Be willing to let it happen gradually. People who do that global approach will find that the weight will come off faster than they expect.”

The payoffs of your exercise

“Your cardiovascular health improves,” Potter said. “We’re seeing more and more that cardiovascular issues are becoming an issue in women. It’s climbing up the ranks as a more common cause of death for women, more like it has been for males for years.

“In the South, we see a lot of diabetes. Often, with diet and exercise, you can control many of the issues of diabetic complications and minimize the amount of medication required for that.”

Exercise also builds stronger bones, and minimizes the risk of fractures. “Women are more prone to fractures as they age because of hormonal changes” Potter said. “Putting stresses on bones will increase the strength to those bones.”

Exercising also helps you mentally. The psychology of being in shape and feeling good is real.

“The endorphins released from exercise can do a lot to keep your spirits up, keep you happy and enjoying who you are,” Potter said. “Overall, it’s a matter of being able to be healthy for those around you, and being able to enjoy things with those people.”