Staying Physically and Mentally Fit as We Grow Older

Questions for Andrew T. Weil, MD

Workouts for the brain
I’ve recently retired and all the leisure time disturbs me. I think I should seek out new challenges to keep my mind and memory nimble. Any suggestions?

You’re right about the need for new challenges as we age. Workouts for the brain are as important as physical activity is for the body. In my new book, Healthy Aging, I describe various ways to keep the mind agile and boost memory and concentration. I’ve long recommended card games and word puzzles as worthwhile traditional pastimes to exercise the brain.

But if you’re looking for truly new challenges for your brain, the best mental workouts I can think of are learning a new computer operating system and learning a new language. If you’ve used a computer, you’re familiar with the frustration of learning a new operating system – it wears you out. But this kind of challenge is exactly what is needed to force change on the brain’s neural network so that it will stay flexible and young.

If you haven’t used a computer very much, now’s the time to learn. It may drive you crazy for a while, give you headaches and make you wish you never decided to take up the challenge. But it will open a new world for you once you learn all its complexities and give your brain a good workout in the process.

Learning a language is another perfect challenge to take on now that you’ve retired. Some people have a natural ear for language and learn quickly, but anyone who can hear and imitate sounds can learn a new language at any age. And you don’t have to master it; it’s the attempt to learn that gives the benefit. This type of learning draws on “fluid intelligence,” the ability to stay focused and manage attention while ignoring irrelevant information. Fluid intelligence is one of the first aspects of brain function to suffer as age takes its toll on the mind. Learning another language should be more protective than any supplements or smart drugs designed to stave off cognitive decline.

I speak Spanish and used to speak German. I’m determined to brush that up and one day learn Japanese.

A fitness plan for seniors
What’s the best exercise for older people? I’ve read that swimming and horseback riding are easy on the joints.

I would agree with you that swimming is good exercise for older people, but horseback riding probably isn’t the best idea for most seniors. It does use several muscle groups and can burn calories (as any rider knows, you must constantly adjust your body to remain upright and in control). However, riding is a sport that requires you to already be in pretty good shape; the demands of riding can stress arthritic joints in the hands, knees and shoulders, worsen back pain, and aggravate prostate problems in men. I wouldn’t suggest it as a beginning form of exercise. However, seniors who are accustomed to riding can continue to enjoy significant exercise benefits for as long as they’re comfortable on horseback.

At any age, an exercise program should ideally contain three elements: aerobic activity (such as walking, swimming or biking) for cardiovascular fitness, resistance training to increase muscle strength (which declines by about 15 percent per decade during one’s 60s and 70s) and exercises to increase flexibility and balance, which can help prevent falls as you age.

I suggest walking as an ideal aerobic exercise – we all know how to do it, and you don’t need any special equipment other than a good pair of shoes. Seniors who have joint problems that could be aggravated by walking can get an equally good workout from swimming or talking water aerobics classes.

Resistance or strength training for those over 65 can be done with free weights or at a gym on weight machines. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that seniors do a resistance training workout at least two days a week (but no more than four) with 48 hours of rest between sessions. Be sure to get instruction at a gym or from a personal trainer to learn the correct way to do these exercises. The idea is to work the muscles of the chest, shoulders, arms, back, abdomen and legs by doing one or two exercises per muscle group. As this gets easier, you can increase either the number of times you repeat each movement or the amount of weight you’re working with.

For flexibility, I recommend stretching classes, yoga or Pilates, a conditioning system that increases both core strength and flexibility.

I also highly recommend tai chi, sometimes called “Chinese shadow boxing.” Tai chi is a formal series of flowing, graceful movements performed slowly and designed to harmonize the circulation of energy (chi) around the body. Like yoga, tai chi is a good method of stress reduction and relaxation, and it also promotes flexibility, balance, and good body awareness. It is beautiful to watch and enjoyable to practice and has proven to be particularly good for the elderly, because it reduces risk of injury from falls.

Too old to build muscle?
Is heavy weight lifting a good exercise for someone who is 60 years old?

Weight lifting in the context of strength training (also called resistance training) is an important part of an overall fitness program regardless of age. In fact, research shows that even people in their 90s can improve their strength and walking speed through weight training.

I discussed your question about “heavy” weight lifting with my personal trainer Dan Bornstein. He explained that he defines “heavy” as enough weight to prevent an individual from completing eight repetitions of an exercise because of muscle fatigue or failure. For example, if you were working with a 10-pound weight and could not successfully repeat a move eight times, the 10-pound weight would be too heavy for you. Ideally, to build strength, you should be able to do two or three sets of eight to 12 repetitions with good form before the muscle that you are working tires and “fails.” Once you can do three sets of eight easily with perfect form, you generally can handle a bit more weight.

If you’re new to strength training, I urge you to work with a trainer or coach if possible. They will help you learn proper form in order to avoid injury and to perform the exercises properly for the effect you want. Look for a trainer certified by the American College of Sports Medicine or the National Strength and Conditioning Association. If you can’t afford a trainer, you can learn strength-training exercises from the many books on the subject. One that I recommend is “The Whartons’ Strength Book” by Jim and Phil Wharton and Bev Browning (Times Books, 1999). Dan Bornstein makes the point that as long as you learn correct form, age has little to do with the amount of weight you should be able to lift in a program aimed at building muscle and increasing your strength.

I applaud your interest in strength training. It can help prevent osteoporosis, maintain mobility and prevent falls and is equally important for men and women.

“Questions for Andrew Weil, MD” were previously published at and have been posted on this blog with permission by the author.

Andrew T. Weil, MD is an internationally acknowledged physician and author best known for his work in the field of integrative medicine. He is the founder and Director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. For more information, please visit

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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