They may be called senior citizens by the younger generation,

They may be called senior citizens by the younger generation, but active folks over 50 know that an active, healthy life can be possible at any age.

Beginning in 1996, four million people will turn 50 each year. Already, according to a recent report on aging, Americans over age 65 outnumber teen-agers. Of those reaching 65, 80 percent are living to age 80.

The extension of average lifespan has brought new challenges for the aging, one of which is paying attention to leading a healthy lifestyle. For the elderly, that can make or break the chances of growing old gracefully. The difference between those who enjoy those “golden” years and those who suffer through them has a lot to do with how physically, mentally and socially active they stay.

Experts agree that an all-around fitness program which combines these three aspects of living is the best.

Brian Ezell, a physical fitness trainer at North Mississippi Medical Center’s Wellness Center, said a group of seniors who are members of the center have formed a Seniors Coffee Club for that purpose.

“They come here and exercise, attend seminars and have meals together regularly,” Ezell said.

Harold Wies, a 93-year-old member of the club, swims three times a week at the center. Wies participates in the Mississippi Senior Olympics each year and won three silver medals in the National Senior Olympics in San Antonio, Texas last summer.

“My secret for a long life is to exercise regularly and eat oatmeal every morning,” Wies quipped with a laugh.

Enjoying exercise is as important as doing it regularly, agreed Henry Gooszen who works out every day with activities from weight-lifting to step aerobics. Even Gooszen’s vacations are designed to keep he and his wife, Fran Gooszen, in great physical condition.

“We go on hiking vacations,” he said. “We especially enjoy the mountains of the northwestern United States.”

Get physical

As important as mental and social activity are, seniors can actually live longer to enjoy their lives if they make sure they are physically fit. Exercise can help prevent heart disease and some of the other illnesses that come with advancing age. It improves cardiovascular health, lowers, cholesterol and can reduce or reverse the bone-mineral loss that occurs with aging.

Regular weight-bearing exercise deposits calcium in the bones, reducing the risk of osteoporosis. Exercise also helps people over 65 maintain muscle mass, facilitates respiratory capacity and improves overall strength.

And because exercise builds muscular strength, it can help seniors maintain their independence longer.

For those age 50 or older, the American Council on Exercise suggests consulting a doctor before starting an exercise program. Then begin with a low-intensity, short-duration program, like walking for five or 10 minutes every day.

Your goal should be a comprehensive program that includes a warm-up, aerobic activity, muscle toning and stretching exercises. Gauge the intensity of your program by monitoring both your heart rate and your perception of the exertion.

“In other words, your level should feel comfortable,” Ezell said.

If you think you lack the motivation to follow through with your program, joining an exercise class can help. Choose a low-intensity class or one designed specifically for you. A personal trainer can also help you design a program and stay motivated.

Take precautions

Summer can be a great time to start an exercise program because of the wonderful, sunny weather, but seniors often overlook the need to stay hydrated.

As people age, their thirst mechanism becomes less accurate and their body’s ability to react quickly to heat or cold rapidly diminishes, Ezell said. This means seniors are more susceptible to illnesses such as heat stroke, cramps and exhaustion, which are caused by dehydration, often triggered by extreme temperature conditions.

Some of the warning signs of heat-related illnesses and severe dehydration are involuntary muscle spasms, headache, dizziness, weakness and loss of consciousness.

The best way for seniors to avoid these often life-threatening conditions is to drink ample amounts of water and limit time spent in extreme climates. At least two to three quarts of water a day from all sources is recommended. Of this amount, one to two quarts should be water itself.

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