So you want to start exercising more after a lifetime of cubicle-dwelling and have settled on the sport of millions: running. Congrats — it is great exercise, and it can be very rewarding.
But please — if you’re over 50-something, or even younger and truly out of shape — do not simply lace up an old pair of sneakers and charge out the front door.
First, run the idea past your primary-care doctor. A physical exam may identify cardiac issues or other limitations that warrant trying a different form of exercise instead.
And even after obtaining a clean bill of health, there are practical considerations to keep in mind. We spoke to Joseph Daigneau, owner of Persevere Physical Therapy in Philadelphia, and Dave Welsh, owner of South Jersey Running Company, for tips on how to stay safe, avoid frustration, and above all, have fun.
Where to run
One of running’s appeals is that no special facilities are required. Still, it is wise to choose a location carefully, especially as you get on in years.
Among the pitfalls: Older folks may not pick up their feet as high as younger people, Daigneau says. If you run on the sidewalk, beware of cracks and uneven pavement that can send you sprawling.
Same goes for running on grass. The forgiving surface may be more appealing than concrete. But for those who are less able to react quickly, hidden dips and depressions can result in a fall or sprained ankle.
A better choice may be a good paved trail in a park. Welsh recommends a high school track, changing directions periodically or staying in the outside lanes in case the tight turns cause muscle strain.
Yet another option is to run in the street — but in that case, be aware of point No. 2:
Seeing and hearing
In many states, traffic laws dictate that if sidewalks are available, runners and other pedestrians must stay out of the road. If you must run in the street, stay on the left side, facing traffic. That way, you can see oncoming motorists and get out the way, if necessary. Above all, don’t assume that drivers can see you. It’s no secret that some people glance at their phones while behind the wheel, or even send a text, despite laws that prohibit it.
If running after dark, wear reflective gear. Many running shoes have shiny logos that reflect vehicle headlights, but that isn’t enough. Consider wearing a vest or light jacket with reflective material.
And resist the urge to wear headphones, lest you fail to hear traffic. That goes double for older people, many of whom have a hearing loss. Consider running with a partner so you can look out for each other, or even a group affiliated with a running store.
If you have not exercised in a while, the joints are going to be a bit creaky. Start slow. If running seems daunting at first, feel free to walk instead. Daigneau tells novice runners to start by making sure they can walk for 30 minutes with no pain. Then they can graduate to a combination approach: repeated cycles of six minutes of walking followed by four minutes of running at a moderate pace. If you complete five of those repetitions (50 minutes’ worth), that amounts to 20 minutes of running — a respectable goal.
Even after building up strength and endurance needed for sustained running, there always will be aches and pains. That is true at any age.
The key is to distinguish between regular soreness and the type of pain that suggests you are overdoing it. Daigneau says that if soreness persists beyond two or three days, it’s time to dial it back.
Sudden, sharp pain also is a red flag. When in doubt, stop.
What to wear
At any age, a runner’s most important purchase is a good pair of shoes. The topic merits an entire article, but at a minimum, keep these tips in mind:
- Running shoes generally should be at least a half-size larger than other footwear, Welsh says. That’s because a runner’s feet and toes swell during the course of a run, and they also spread out each time the shoe hits the ground. A bit of extra space is essential.
- Older runners may like a shoe with more cushioning, but the most important attribute is a good fit.
- The shoes can be pricey, sometimes running more than $100. If that’s too steep, ask if the store has older models at clearance prices.
5 tips for improving your quality of life as you age
The secret to a long life
Interviews with people celebrating their 100th birthday always include one question: What’s the secret to your long life?
The answers aren’t always in line with science. For example, in 2020 a Chinese centenarian responded with some dubious advice: “Smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and eat junk food.”
From this we can probably surmise that living a long life is sometimes just a matter of luck and good genes. The rest of us might need to work a little harder to live well into our older years. Are there certain things that can help?
To find out we reached out to Dr. Suzanne Salamon, associate chief for clinical geriatrics at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. We asked her for some advice on how to live longer — and more importantly, how to live well. Here are five of her tips.
Protect your brain
One of the conditions people fear the most as they get older is dementia. While your risk of Alzheimer’s disease is largely out of your control, other types of dementia are preventable, says Dr. Salamon. The health of your brain, like your heart, is largely the product of your lifestyle habits.
“There are a whole lot of things we can do to prevent vascular dementia, which has the same risk factors as heart disease,” she says. Preventive steps include, among others, eating a healthy diet, getting regular physical activity, not smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight, and keeping cholesterol and blood pressure within the recommended range.
“It’s important to start these practices early in your life, but it’s never too late,” says Dr. Salamon.
An easy way to stay active is by walking. You don’t need to hit 10,000 steps a day to stay healthy — as many as 7,500 can do the trick, says Dr. Salamon.
A 2019 JAMA Internal Medicine study found that walking just 5,000 steps was associated with better health. Even women taking as few as 4,400 steps per day had a 41% lower risk of dying compared with women who walked 2,500 steps a day or fewer. And they didn’t need to be power walking — just moving around the house was enough.
Put technology to use
Many older adults who didn’t grow up with computers and other gadgets might be hesitant to embrace electronic tools. But learning to use them can bring health benefits, says Dr. Salamon. During the pandemic, telemedicine has become a valuable way for people to connect with their doctors and keep tabs on their health. Computers can also help people stay connected with friends and family.
“For many older people, especially people in their 80s and 90s, the computer opens up the world for them,” she says. They can use it to rapidly access information, read about anything and everything, communicate by email and videoconference with their friends and family. Today, many senior centers offer assistance to people who want to learn more about how to use technology, which can give you an easy place to learn the ropes. Don’t be afraid to give it a try.
Keep tabs on medications
As people get older, their pillbox often gets larger. Many people take multiple pills each day, some of them prescribed many years ago. This raises the risk of not only harmful drug interactions but also dangerous side effects. Prescriptions need to be updated regularly, because your body may react differently to drugs if your weight or your metabolism changes.
It’s good practice to review each of your medications with your doctor or pharmacist every six months to ensure that you still need to be taking them, that the dose is accurate and that your medications aren’t interacting with one another, says Dr. Salamon. Making needed adjustments can help you avoid side effects, such as dizziness, which may lead to a fall.
Use mobility tools
Developing good habits and knowing when to accept some help can keep you healthy and independent longer.
A lot of people are reluctant to use a cane or a walker, even if they feel unstable when they walk. This may lead to a fall and a serious injury that affects their quality of life.
“A walker can really help keep you from falling and also gets you moving more. You won’t be so afraid of moving and walking longer distances,” says Dr. Salamon.