June 30, 2008 -- Summer has officially arrived, and for me it is a great reminder to all of us who have been hibernating indoors to go out and get some exercise and a little sun.
Exercise is key to improving fitness, and a little sun will boost critical vitamin D production and contribute to good health overall.
Take fitness for older people, for example. I am reminded of a study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found that fitness level, not body fat, was a stronger predictor of longevity for adults age 60 and older.
Even overweight seniors who walked for 30 minutes a day most days of the week had improved survival over the seniors who were normal weight but sedentary. Incredibly, in most instances, death rates for those with higher fitness were less than half of rates for those who were unfit.
This is great news for seniors who may have packed on a few extra pounds over the winter, and it is once again a reminder that sometimes the key to good health is as simple as donning a pair of sneakers and taking a daily walk outdoors or at your neighborhood mall.
This study is also consistent with a lot of recent research showing that for seniors, the functional status or ability to get around and perform daily activities is much more important to predicting longevity than a specific diagnosis or chronic disease.
Never Too Late
For seniors who think it is too late to begin an exercise program, think again. My 83-year-old father recently moved to a first floor apartment with my mother who was having trouble negotiating stairs in their two-story home (my mother has severe heart disease and arthritis in both knees, which limits her mobility).
The apartment complex has a wonderful small gym with both a treadmill and an exercise bike. For the first time ever, my dad began to use the gym, hoping to gain some strength and to get into better shape so that he would be in top condition to help my mother get around. He was tentative at first, exercising in 10-minute increments.
Before he realized what was happening to his strength and endurance, however, he had worked himself up to about 30 minutes a day. He admitted it was boring at first, but the challenge and need to be strong to help my mother gave him encouragement.
Today, he is much stronger than he has been in a long time; his balance is better, and his feeling of confidence and accomplishment is incredible. With the accumulating research on the benefits of fitness, I can also assure him that although there are no guarantees, simply walking or working out 30 minutes a day will help increase the odds he will have many more years left to enjoy his life and his eight children and 13 grandchildren.
Even Short Workouts Effective
For all of us, regardless of age, the JAMA fitness study is one more reminder that regardless of our body weight and failures with dieting, staying fit by walking 30 minutes most days (even in short increments of, let's say, 10 minutes at a time) can't help but be good in the long run.
Too often I hear patients who are having trouble losing weight and think it is hopeless to walk or work out. Even if you can't control all that you eat -- or your weight or waist size -- during the many delicious and tempting summer barbecues or at other times, you can feel good that by staying active and fit you will be doing a lot to add good years to your life.
And before you know it you will be losing the dangerous belly fat, which packs extra inches around your waist as well.
Spread the word about the value of fitness with a friend or family member who could use a little encouragement. Volunteer to be someone's walking partner. Buy a pedometer as a gift for a friend (they only cost a few dollars). Start by recording your daily activities in steps and try to increase by 2,000-step increments. The experts suggest you set a goal of 10,000 steps a day to reap all the health benefits. Remember, every step you take toward good health counts for the long run.
And remember -- it only takes about 10 to 15 minutes in midday sun over the summer two days a week or so to get all the vitamin D you need. So after a short period of time in the sun, don't forget the sunscreen. Most older people are deficient in vitamin D, and they desperately need this vitamin to maintain their bone and muscle strength, and the health of just about every tissue in the body. For seniors, production of vitamin D by their aging skin is less efficient -- so a vitamin D supplement may be needed too.
I would love to hear your success stories. Have you started an exercise program recently? How did you do it? What motivates you? Have you had luck recruiting a friend to be your walking or exercise partner? What novel ways have you found to get started on your journey to being fit?
Dr. Marie Savard is an ABC News medical contributor.