Creative Ways for Older Adults to Stay Active during Winter

Snuggling on the couch is always a temptation in the winter months, especially in Cleveland: only 167 days a year bring us even partial sunshine, according to the National Climate Data Center. The rest of the year we’re looking at about 80 percent cloud cover.

“The predominant color of the season is gray,” agrees Sara Peckham, former long-time director of wellness at Judson and member of Judson’s JSI Board of Directors and Judson Home Care Board of Directors, where she is the Chair. “So many people here are affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD),” a kind of depression brought on by the changing seasons and light deprivation .  SAD drains our energy and puts us in a negative mood. All the more reason, she says, to start moving and chase away the gloom!

“Winter is not the time for humans to hibernate,” she says. “Animals, yes, but not people. When the temperature goes down outside, humans need to turn it up inside, for a lot of good reasons.”

Get Those Joints Moving

For starters, we need to keep our joints moving. “When we don’t move our joints, they get stuck,” she says, adding that there are easy ways to un-stick them.

The best tactic is to use your own daily routine, but to add some pizzazz to it. Call it your own interval training program. “If you’re vacuuming, for example, do it with vigor,” she says. March while you push the vacuum, and get those knees higher than usual. Take larger steps sometimes, push your shoulders down, suck in your tummy and your bum. Dance a little. Make it exercise!

Another simple solution is to use the steps in your home to kick up your metabolism – but be sure you have a railing to steady yourself. You don’t have to climb flights up and down; just use two steps if that’s easier. “Step up, step down,” Peckham says. “Get a little rhythm going.”

Use Everyday Objects as Free Weights

Exercising your arms with free weights is another way to build muscle and create a little heat. If you don’t own any weights, Peckham advises using two cans of food to do some arm curls and gentle lifting exercises. If you’re fit enough to get down and back up from the floor, you can lie yoga mat – or just a towel – and try some stretches and push-ups.

There are lots of things you can do to get moving, but the simplest way to exercise at home is simply walking around, or even marching in place. “If you like watching television in the evening, get up and walk during the commercials,” Peckham says. So if you watch an evening of prime-time TV and march in place during all the commercials, you’re getting about an hour of exercise!

Develop a Routine

If you really want to boost your energy, work all of the above tactics into a combination routine: housework with zest, a few minutes of step-exercise, some weight lifting, stretches and floor exercises, and walking or marching in place. “And by the way, if you have limited mobility, you can get a lot done just sitting in a chair,” Peckham says. You can hold your legs out straight in front of you and lift them slowly, one at a time, to strengthen those muscles. She also recommends grabbing both arms of the chair, pressing down and trying to lift your body off the chair a few inches. “You won’t be able to lift yourself in the beginning,” she says, “but you’ll feel those arm muscles working.”

Exercise Before You Get Out of Bed

Before your feet hit the floor in the morning, Peckham says, we should do a few exercises in bed to rouse our muscles. “Do the `bicycle.’ Add some leg lifts – again, one at a time – and while your leg is raised, roll your ankle one way, then the other. Point your toes. You’re going to be using your feet a lot during the day, so wake them up and let them know something’s going to happen!”

Leg lifts don’t only work your legs; they strengthen your core as well. But leg and arm muscles aren’t the only ones that need exercise. Rolling your head from side to side will strengthen your neck muscles. “Think about your hands, too,” Peckham says. “Open them and close them while you watch TV, and roll your wrists in circles if you can. Later on you’ll be grabbing railings, pouring milk, holding a mug of coffee – we use our hands a lot during the day, and we need to keep them strong so we’ll always have a firm grip on things.”

Get Out and Get Moving with a Friend

Even better, if you can manage, try getting out of the house for exercise. Dress in layers that are easy to remove (so you can take them off as you warm up) and take a small water bottle with you. “Even if it’s cold out, it’s still important to hydrate.” Indoor swimming is a terrific way to loosen the joints, and exercising in public “keeps the social aspect going, too,” Peckham says. “Socializing is important to our health.”

It’s always good to “buddy up” for exercise, she says. “Call someone and walk with them. You stay social that way, and you can be a little bit active together.

The bottom line is that exercise is the single best way to keep energy and mood levels high during the winter – and that’s why we can’t be couch potatoes. Exercise combats both fatigue and depressed moods: “What elevates your temperature elevates your mood,” she says.

 Write Down Your Routine

Sometimes, people can’t always remember what to do in their routines. If that’s your experience, Peckham advises, “Write a list of your intentions.” And each day, record something physical you’ve done, especially when you’re first starting. “Even those head-rolls and exercises in bed – they may sound very basic, but to someone who’s been doing nothing in terms of exercise, they’re significant. After a few days, try those exercises sitting up. It gets easier.”

Strong muscles, less fatigue and mood improvement aren’t the only benefits of exercise. “It boosts your immunity, helps control your blood pressure, helps control diabetes, helps prevent osteoporosis – it really helps all of our systems,” she says. “But you have to stress your body in order to see improvements – you have to put your lungs, heart and bones to work if you want to keep them healthy.”

In Ohio, where SAD is a problem for so many, another tactic is to combat light deprivation. Some people invest in “light boxes” that simulate sunlight in your home. But if that seems extreme to you, just turn up the lights in your house. “Keep the house as light as is reasonable,” Peckham says. “A lighter house will help maintain a lighter mood in winter.”

The main thing is to move – and don’t take on too much in the beginning, Do things that fit into your normal day, just a little at first: “There are degrees of everything,” Peckham says. “Just don’t do nothing. Make your own sunshine and make your own heat, and the payoff will be enormous.”

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