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Living Longer, Living Better | Health

Move on

Keeping exercise fun keeps you coming back — and helps keep you well

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By Nancye Tuttle
Globe Correspondent / February 27, 2011

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Exercise is one of the best ways to help you live long and well, and becomes more important after you reach age 50, doctors say.

Exercising at least three times a week, 30 to 35 minutes at a time, provides many benefits. It helps your heart; improves strength, balance, and flexibility; lowers cholesterol and blood pressure; and reduces risks of heart attack, type-2 diabetes, stroke, colon cancer, and breast cancer.

Exercise can also ease depression, reduce stress, and raise self-esteem.

“Our bodies thrive on exercise,’’ said Dr. Lilian Mikael, a geriatrician at Emerson Hospital in Concord. “I prescribe it to my patients as preventative medicine.’’

A lifelong exercise plan has four elements, said Karen Bell, a personal trainer at The Club in Lowell: cardiovascular fitness, strength, balance, and flexibility. But no matter what exercise you choose, doctors say, make sure it’s one that you’ll do regularly.

Find something you like to do, advised Dr. Kim Clemente, a Lowell General Hospital practitioner, and you’ll be more likely to stick with it. Keep moving, doctors say, and don’t wait to start.

Here are five easy, low impact, and even fun exercises that can help keep you healthy.

Walking

Walking is the tried-and-true, low-impact exercise. Put on your walking shoes, head out, and step briskly. In bad weather, use a treadmill or walk the mall.

Walking can help regulate blood pressure and strengthen the heart, said Mikael.

She recommends starting with three 20-minute walks a week, and building up to five to seven 30-minute sessions a week.

If you can’t do 30 minutes, break it into three 10-minute or two 15-minute walks.

Let arms swing naturally, according to the body’s own rhythm, said Bell. Hold in your stomach muscles to improve posture. And remember, you don’t have to walk fast to gain benefits.

“Walking isn’t about sweating — it’s about taking deep breaths and moving rhythmically,’’ said Bell. “If you’re huffing and puffing and out of breath, you’re walking too fast.’’

Tai chi

Often called “meditation in motion,’’ tai chi is a low-impact exercise based on ancient Chinese martial arts movements.

“It’s the body and mind working together,’’ said Ray Caisse, a member of the International Taoist Tai Chi Society teaching in Acton, Westford, Lunenburg, and Lowell. “We teach the mind the exercises to do, and the limbs do what the mind thinks.’’

A tai chi set, which takes about 20 minutes to complete, encompasses 108 specific movements based on five animal forms important to Chinese culture: tiger, leopard, dragon, snake, and stork.

The “white stork spreads wing’’ movement, for example, involves standing on one foot and raising the arms to the ceiling.

Tai chi stretches the spine, then compresses it, working all the body’s tendons. It’s ideal for people with back problems or pinched nerves, aiding posture and balance; strengthening bones and muscles; and relieving stress, said Mikael. Once all the movements are learned, tai chi is done in silence and becomes meditative. Classes typically last an hour.

Caisse recommends doing it three times a week, in class or at home.

Water aerobics

Water aerobics provides all the benefits of regular aerobics, including lowering blood pressure and strengthening bones, but with a lot less stress on joints than the land-based version.

That makes it ideal for people with arthritis or fibromyalgia, or pain in the back, hips, knees, or feet. It’s also good for those with balance problems because the water provides support, doctors said.

Done in the shallow end of a swimming pool, and often set to music, the exercises include jumping jacks, jogging in place, and using foam flotation devices to push against the water, increasing resistance and building strength.

“Anything you can do on land in an aerobics class you can do in water aerobics,’’ said Bell. “And there’s no impact to make the exercise uncomfortable.’’

Classes are offered at YMCAs, community education programs, and over-55 communities.

Zumba

Zumba turns exercise into a dance party. It burns calories, stimulates circulation, and aids balance and agility.

It also can help prevent osteoporosis by building bone mass, according to doctors.

“Zumba is a great aerobic workout for cardiovascular fitness,’’ said Mikael. “The movements are good for balance and strength, too.’’

Created in 2001 by Colombian fitness instructor Alberto “Beto’’ Perez, it’s a Latin-inspired dance fitness program, with exotic moves set to music like merengue and salsa. Some moves resemble belly dancing, with hip jutting, swinging, and swaying.

Others have names like “wax it on, buff it off,’’ which involves rubbing the hands in a circular motion on the hips, then swinging hips and arms as if drying off with a towel.

Zumba is offered in fitness centers, hospital health programs, and senior centers.

Perhaps Zumba’s biggest advantage is the fun factor.

People love doing it and that keeps them coming back.