Audrey Twiggs sets her own rules.
As a result, she has cleaned up a medical chart plagued by warning signs for diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. She reversed her high-risk status by drop-kicking her sedentary lifestyle and picking up a few habits she plans to keep.
First, she sticks to her just-do-it rule. If she must skip her standing date at the gym, she’ll take what she can get. “You just do what you can,” she says. Sometimes that means a walk around her Twinsburg apartment complex. Other times she’ll pop in an exercise video for 20 minutes.
Twiggs also abides by a self-imposed one-bite guideline. If she’s craving cheesecake, she’ll allow herself just one taste.
“For me, the first bite is what gets your taste buds,” she reasons. “After that, you’re just eating the dessert.”
Sound like an infomercial or a potluck of empty promises? Twiggs isn’t selling a fad weight-loss program or magic pill that sheds pounds while you sleep. Her advice comes from experience. Just two years ago, she weighed 300 pounds and wore a size 28. The last time she fit into size 10 jeans was when she was 25 years old. Now, active at age 48, Twiggs does again. And she’s growing “younger” each year.
|Twiggs has a standing appointment with the treadmill.
Photo by Megan Rossman
“I decided it was time to make a change,” says Twiggs, adding that a visit to her doctor prompted her personal mission to get moving. “She told me I was in the high-risk category for everything — all these things that affect women, especially at my age.”
Exercise is our best defense against aging, says Dr. Susan Joy, director of women’s sports health, Cleveland Clinic SportsHealth. Strong bones, lean muscle, healthy joints and cardiovascular health help our bodies withstand stress and illness.
“Exercise is proving to be our only fountain of youth,” Joy notes. “People who exercise don’t have the effects of aging that [inactive] people do.”
Society at a Standstill
For most women, a sedentary lifestyle is not so obvious. Looks don’t tell the whole story about physical health, says Linda McVey, health and wellness director, YMCA of Greater Cleveland. But we all can benefit from Twiggs’ rules and motivation to get moving.
“How your body looks has nothing to do, in many cases, with how it functions,” McVey notes. “And how you function is what enables your body to do what you want in life.”
The good news? Whether your goal is to lose weight, add another mile to your daily run or build your strength so you can live independently for longer, it’s never too late to start an exercise program.
“We can make a dramatic difference in how we feel and function with a little movement,” McVey says. “If you’ve been sedentary your whole life, it’s not too late to start exercising. Your body is so glad to have you move.”
We read and hear about the benefits of physical activity all the time, but we are in no better shape. “Despite our knowledge of exercise and disease prevention, we are not any better at taking care of ourselves,” Joy points out.
In many cases, we simply don’t realize we’re at a standstill most of the day. Pedometer readings surprise some of Joy’s patients. “People feel like they are on the go, but they may walk 3,000 steps a day,” she says. That’s 7,000 steps away from the goal set by Shape Up America! “Fifty [percent] to 60 percent of people report themselves as completely sedentary,” Joy estimates.
Meanwhile, as technology evolves, our activity level declines. “Everything is wireless and remote access,” Joy says. “We have to continue to use our bodies even though technology makes it easier for us not to.”
Then there is women’s nature to nurture. “We put ourselves last on the list,” McVey says. “What [women] don’t seem to understand is that we can’t give what we don’t have, and we can’t be what we want to be to everyone else unless we are strong enough to meet the demands life imposes on us.
“The small investment we put into a workout pays off in huge dividends to those we care about,” she adds.
Motivated to Move
The problem is, we often don’t commit to physical activity. We try it on like a trendy outfit and discard it when we no longer have room for it.
“Most people know how to exercise — you know how to walk,” remarks Ron Browne, vice president of Smart Living for Judson in University Circle. “The problem is getting and staying motivated. That is a huge hurdle.
“I have a physician friend who says 21 times makes a habit,” Browne adds. “I don’t know if it’s 21 or 40 times, but the point is you have to force yourself to get over the hump.”
|"Now I wake up in the morning and I've never felt better," says Twiggs, 48.
Photo by Megan Rossman
Naturally, motivation to exercise is different for each woman.
Twiggs panted through 10 minutes of an exercise tape designed for seniors when she realized just how out of shape she had become. Marching in place felt like marathon training.
“It’s hard to get motivated — I was never an exercise person,” admits Twiggs, airing a familiar defense. A palm-sized photo of “Audrey Twiggs before” that she keeps tucked in the leather slip of her wallet shows a woman uncomfortably pressed into a diner booth. A booth not made for women her size.
“I had no energy and I didn’t want to do anything,” Twiggs says. Like many professionals and working mothers who balance desk jobs, night classes and responsibilities at home, squeezing in a workout is as tempting as feasting on a helping of sprouts.
But for some women, the peer pressure of group exercise prevents excuses from sabotaging a workout plan.
More than half of the students in Tonya Banzhaf’s aerobics classes at Fitworks in Rocky River and downtown have been regulars since she started teaching in 1997. “Once they get in the class, and they see that someone else is motivating them, they stick with it,” she says.
Age is irrelevant. One of her students is a 70-year-old stroke survivor. “He’s still going,” she says. “Monday through Friday.”
Banzhaf has always maintained a vigorous exercise regimen, teaching up to 30 classes per week, while running and squeezing in weight-training during “down time.” Unlike Twiggs, Banzhaf was an exercise veteran, but still not fit.
Proper nutrition motivated her to fulfill the second part of the get-fit formula. “I didn’t want my son to grow up thinking it was OK to be overweight,” she says. Banzhaf focused on preserving her health and setting an example for her son, Lucas.
“When you get older, you pay attention more to risk factors, and when you start having kids, you have someone else to take care of,” Banzhaf relates. She feels closer to health risk factors at age 31 than she did in the past.
Regardless of age, the motivation for exercise should be to build a strong foundation for future health, McVey says. “At a younger age, exercise enables you to keep up with your kids, juggle better and handle the stress of multiple demands,” she describes. “In midlife, it helps you handle body stresses like menopause. And in our older years, exercise allows you to be independent for as long as possible.”
How Much Is Enough?
The first change for all women, regardless of age, should be an attitude shift. The idea of booking a solid hour for a gym workout is exhausting. No time, no energy, no gym membership, no way.
“We need to revamp what we think of as a workout,” McVey says. “We don’t always have to be in the gym or wearing tennis shoes and special spandex.”
Consistency, not quantity, is the key.
“We hear that we should exercise for 60 minutes three to five days a week, and we think there is no way we’ll fit that in,” McVey says. “That is why requirements for general health are to move 30 minutes or more most days a week.”
But there is a marked difference between activity and exercise.
“There are health benefits from both,” Joy notes. “But people often underestimate how vigorously they need to move to get a lot of benefits, particularly weight loss. But even if you don’t exercise vigorously, you can improve body functions like blood pressure and cholesterol profile with physical activity.”
Take the stairs rather than the elevator. Park farther away from entrances and walk. Mow the lawn. Play with your children. Carry items to the second floor of your home one by one.
Some results of increased physical activity are immediate. “You get more stamina, feel more focused and sleep better,” Joy says. “If you can avoid the common pitfalls of exercising late at night or to the point of exhaustion, you will be surprised at how energized you feel.”
Drastic change takes time, and long-term benefits of starting an exercise program include prevention from a laundry list of health concerns, from obesity to heart disease. The reward for an active lifestyle is longevity.
According to a study at the National Institute on Aging, older adults who exercised three times a week were much less likely to develop dementia than those who were less active. Browne says strength training for adults in nursing homes helps the bed-ridden progress to walkers, then to canes and soon walking unassisted.
The first step to effect change is to evaluate your current fitness level and set some goals. “Every one of us can do more than we do,” Browne says. “You have to take your baseline and increase your physical activity in small increments.”
A sedentary 50-year-old might begin an exercise program with 10-minute walking spurts a couple times each day. An 80-year-old woman who participates in water aerobics and can easily lift a milk jug is in better shape, McVey says.
Age doesn’t dictate physical fitness. “The older you get, the less your chronological age and the more your physiological age matters,” McVey says.
Still, age introduces limitations. So Cleveland Magazine asked four fitness professionals to offer suggestions for workÃÂout plans based on three age groups: 20- to 30-somethings, midlife and mature adult. In these sidebars, find ways to get moving and fine-tune an existing workout program. (Be sure to consult a physician and get advice from a qualified fitness professional first.)
“I don’t get up in the morning and think, What will happen to me today?” Twiggs reflects. She’s just one size away from her goal weight – 135 pounds and size 8. “Now I wake up in the morning and I’ve never felt better. To go from high-risk to no-risk is a great feeling.”
|Work Out a Plan
|[Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings]
Fitness Roadblocks: Personal, professional and family commitments compete for your time.
Attitudes: Women who recently delivered a baby view workouts as a distant luxury. “In an ideal world, you could get back to a vigorous plan, but many women are tired,” Joy says. But the most frustrated women exercise moderately and don’t see results. “Women get from different sources that they should walk and be able to lose weight and control blood pressure,” says Dr. Susan Joy, director of women’s sports health at the Cleveland Clinic. “That is the best place to start, but if you are not seeing results, you need to take the next step in your exercise program.”
The Goal: “At a younger age, women are trying to establish themselves in the workplace and look confident,” says Linda McVey, health and wellness director, YMCA of Greater Cleveland. “Exercise can accomplish both of those things. When you feel strong and comfortable in your body, you can meet the demands of your life and function better.”
The Plan: For mothers, try exercise routines that include your child.
Cardio: Ten-minute stroller walks add up. During pregnancy, try water exercise classes, which won’t stress joints.
Strength: “Children are wonderful weights,” McVey points out. Picking up toddlers and joining in child’s play forces mothers to do squats and use their arms.
Flexibility: Prenatal yoga classes encourage flexibility and can alleviate back pain.
For Women On-the-Go: Create an at-home circuit-training program. Start by walking 10 minutes before work, 10 minutes during lunch and 10 minutes when you get home. Convert the steps in your home to a Stairmaster. Incorporate hand weights, such as bicep and triceps curls, for an easy, effective strength workout. Every other day, try an exercise tape — something different like belly dancing. “You are less likely to get bored or injured if you change your routine,” aerobics instructor Tonya Banzhaf says.
Fitness Roadblocks: Women ages 40 to 60 confront pressure from every direction: aging parents, children leaving the nest and hormonal fluctuations. Time is still the top excuse for not exercising. Women who are moderately active and have suffered injuries might find their bodies aren’t capable of the high-impact workouts they adopted in their 20s.
Attitudes: Failed attempts at physical fitness leave women feeling defeated. Weight gain seems inevitable. Many women are not convinced that physical activity will truly improve their lives when so much seems out of balance.
The Goal: Exercise reduces menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and moderate mood swings. Maintaining a healthy weight is more difficult after midlife, when the enzymes that promote fat storage are twice as active. Entering those senior years at a healthy weight prevents myriad health problems.
The Plan: Twiggs started from scratch, knowing in her mid-40s, she was still an exercise beginner. Establish realistic goals and only increase activity by 10 percent each week, Browne advises.
Cardio: Walking is the least expensive, simplest way for non-exercisers to jump-start a cardio routine. Try jumping rope to increase heart rate. For moderate exercisers who do more vigorous workouts several days a week, try a new activity. Running can be hard on the joints, so consider using an elliptical trainer every day if you belong to a gym or ride your bike at home.
Strength: Weight-bearing exercises preserve bone health. Purchase 3-, 5- or 7-pound weights depending on your strength. A 20-minute session two days a week will produce results. Ask a trainer for a home-based workout with resistance bands, which will move joints through different ranges of motion.
Flexibility: For a small investment, Pilates and yoga workout tapes help muscles become supple. Flexibility exercises prevent injury, as well.
Fitness Roadblocks: One of the leading reasons mature adults land in nursing homes is not because they are sick or disabled, but because they are weak, Browne says. Muscle is the key to longevity.
Attitudes: Physical limitations from diseases such as arthritis make exercise uncomfortable. Once sedentary for years, muscle mass and energy continue to decline. Household chores are near impossible.
The Goal: To live independently as long as possible and to maintain strength to enjoy relationships and take pleasure in everyday life.
The Plan: The secret to functioning independently is exercise through activities of daily living. At this age, a physician’s permission and recommendations before beginning any exercise program is especially important.
Cardio: Try low-impact water exercise classes. “If you choose not to move, you’ll lose the ability to move,” McVey says. Walking is great for endurance. Try recreational/endurance activities such as ballroom dancing. For more suggestions, visit the National Institute on Aging at www.nia.nih.gov.
Strength: Stand from a sitting position in a chair and sit back down for a modified squat. Lift everyday items as often as possible: milk jugs, canned foods, grocery bags and library books.
Flexibility: Stretching and balance exercises help with range of motion. Better balance means reduced risk of falls. Practice standing and sitting without using your hands. Stand on one foot while waiting in line. (Alternate feet.) Walk heel-to-toe as if you are on a balance beam.