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It’s Never Too Late to Make Lifestyle Changes

“I’m 95. And a lot of my friends won’t do these,” legendary entertainer Dick Van Dyke told “CBS This Morning” recently, while doing sit-ups in the backyard of his Malibu home. “All you old guys out there, listen to me, I’m telling you: You can keep going — I’m still dancing and singing.”

Our primary care doctors in Delray Beach took note of the interview, because even many of our middle-aged patients kind of shrug and say, “It’s too late now,” when we suggest more exercise or a healthier diet.

What the science says

It’s not just this one celebrity urging older people to “Keep Moving,” as he wrote in his 2016 autobiography. The medical community does too. Studies show that lifestyle changes can have a positive effect on your mental and emotional health no matter when you start.

For example, in a Johns Hopkins-led study, titled Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, researchers tracked more than 6,000 people ages 44 to 84 for over seven years. Those who made healthier lifestyle changes decreased their risk of death in the seven-year time frame by 80 percent. These changes included quitting smoking, getting regular exercise, following a Mediterranean-style diet, and maintaining a healthy weight.

Another study from the Medical University of South Carolina found that people who eat right and exercise more can substantially reduce their risk for cardiovascular disease and death even if they’re in their 50s or 60s.

The study, published in the American Journal of Medicine, found that consuming at least five fruits and vegetables daily, exercising at least 2.5 hours a week, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking can decrease the chances of heart disease by 35 percent, and the overall risk of dying by 40 percent, ABC News reported.

“We call this the ‘turning-back the clock’ study,” lead researcher Dr. Dana E. King told ABC News. “We want to emphasize that it’s not too late to change, and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle don’t accrue only to people who have been doing this all along.”

Pandemic complications

This is also good news for older adults who may have had a relatively healthy lifestyle until the coronavirus pandemic caused life, in general, to come to a screeching halt.

We couldn’t go to the gym or play sports or maintain our social connections. A surprising number of us even became excellent bakers of high-calorie treats. This led to poor nutrition, stunted sleep, little exercise, weight gain, and—for some—unhealthy coping mechanisms like excess drinking.

Earlier this year, the Healthy Aging Special Interest Group published a paper through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) expressing concern about the “potentially devastating consequences of COVID-19” on older adults’ ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle during this unprecedented time.

With the advent of the highly effective COVID-19 vaccines, however, adults of all ages can begin resuming their previous activities.

The problem is, though, that some are hesitant, and others don’t know how to go about it safely.

Alice Herb, for instance, an 88-year-old New York retired lawyer and journalist, used to walk miles around Manhattan. The pandemic changed all that. Now she’s not only seriously out of shape but still concerned about resuming her old activities, despite being fully vaccinated.

“You wonder: What if something happens?” she told The Washington Post. “Maybe I shouldn’t be doing that. Maybe that’s dangerous.”

Start slowly with lifestyle changes

According to health experts, the key is to ease into lifestyle changes. This is important whether you’re trying to resume a previously healthy lifestyle or to turn the page on a less-than-healthy way of living.

“From my experience, older adults are eager to get out of the house and do what they did a year ago,” John Batsis, associate professor of geriatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told The Post.

“I’m a fan of start low, go slow,” he said. “Be honest with yourself as to what you feel capable of doing and what you are afraid of doing. Identify your limitations. It’s probably going to take some time and adjustments along the way.”

Check with us to assess where you are physically and mentally. If you’re having difficulty with physical activity, we may refer you to a physical therapist. If you have residual anxiety, we can help you address it.

Don’t jettison all your comfort foods at once. Keep making the sourdough bread (which contains useful prebiotics) but begin adding more protein, more fruits, and more vegetables to your diet.

The important thing is not to use the excuse that it’s “too late” to improve your health for the better and make these lifestyle changes.

Since we began with Dick Van Dyke, let’s finish with his prescription for ensuring he gets his daily exercise.

“Every morning I’m full of ideas and plans,” he told CBS Sunday Morning. “But [first] I go to the gym; drink a cup of coffee and go, or I’ll talk myself out of it. So I just go.”

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