03/22/2011 08:39 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fitness Strategies For The Boomer Generation

As a member of the Baby Boomer generation I know that nothing is more important than maintaining youth and vitality. And, maintaining fitness is a way to contribute to that! Physical activity is a part of our lives and we don't want to stop now. Unfortunately, years of wear and tear on our musculoskeletal system have caused some issues that make the way we used to train and condition, when we were in our 20's and 30's, not as easy today.

For example, osteoarthritis is on the rise. More than 27 million adults, 1 in almost every 10 American adults, have OA (1), a number expected to increase dramatically as the 78.2 million Baby Boomers age (2). OA limits physical activity and complicates management of other chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart disease. And, many Americans with OA face chronic pain and functional limitations, which often result in job loss and reduced quality of life. Evidence shows that physical activity can reduce the symptoms and progression of OA. But, it must be the right exercise prescription because done incorrectly physical exercise may increase symptoms and disability.

A customized fitness program, with a focus on modification of exercises, is essential to continuing a physical fitness regime that we know yield great benefits. Modifications may vary, based on current physical and musculoskeletal conditions, but it's important to accept that modifications are necessary to continue to maintain and achieve your fitness goals. A customized fitness program incorporates the modifications that are right and best for you and your musculoskeletal history.

The program goals of a customized fitness program are to maintain and increase fitness levels, prevent new injuries, and, stop the progression of old injuries. This is best accomplished by modifying your activities, emphasize integrated links, and make lifestyle changes. The key conditioning parameters to focus on are flexibility, cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, and balance. These are the core components of any fitness program and all must be included to provide a well rounded program and all important results.

It's important before beginning or modifying any fitness program, to receive medical clearance by your physician and, an accurate diagnosis of any previous musculoskeletal problems by a musculoskeletal specialist. This is the essential first step to achieving your fitness goals.

Strengthening your "core" is a must! We know that core muscles provide stability to the trunk and total body. They aid in improving strength and balance. A strong core protects you from potential extremity injuries. And, we must view the body as an integrated whole, not separate individual parts. Our core is the center of that.

There are many exercises that develop core strength. Remember that variety is the key to having fun with your fitness program, ensuring compliance, and, preventing burn out! Abdominal exercises are popular and effective. Abdominal curl up's done on an exercise ball, sit up's with cross over to include the oblique muscles, and the all popular plank exercises are an example of just a few.

Balance activities are also excellent to develop core strength and are important as their own fitness essential. These may include a seated stork position on an exercise ball, using a balance ball, or participating in the activities of yoga, pilates or qigong. These classes are extremely popular and incorporate many different core strengthening exercises in one class session.

Flexibility is also a key component to a fitness program and increasingly important as we age. Often stretching exercises are boring and feel like they always take too much time. So, incorporate stretching into your everyday life activities. For example, reach for that item on a high shelf rather than getting a step stool. And use yoga and pilates to really make your stretching fun and effective.

Customizing your program must also include recognizing your musculoskeletal "weak links". These include areas that have been previously injured and vulnerable to re-injury or vulnerable areas due to musculoskeletal changes. Modifications are necessary to protect these areas from re-injury or further injury.

Strength training is another essential component to a fitness program. Modify strength training activities by using lighter resistance and doing more repetitions. Elastic bands and rubber tubing are excellent for this. Gradually increase resistance over time. And remember, always listen to your body!! When you feel a twinge of pain or discomfort in a weak link or vulnerable area, decrease your resistance and number of repetitions. You should never feel pain in any specific body part or area when you exercise.

Weight bearing activities, running, jogging, jumping, to increase cardiovascular fitness, put a tremendous load on our knees. And, if you're one of the 10 million Americans with OA, these activities will make your symptoms worse. Non-weight bearing exercises MUST be incorporated in your customized fitness program. Cycling, swimming, spinning (my personal favorite!) are all excellent cardiovascular endurance exercises that will increase your fitness. You don't have to pound on hard pavement to get your heart and lungs strong!

Exercise frequency is a key component in customizing your fitness program. We all remember those compulsive seven days a week (or more!) workouts. Exercising three to five days a week, with an average of four, accomplishes the same thing, and, gives your musculoskeletal system a much needed break. Remember, more is NOT necessarily better.

Lifestyle changes are essential to a successful customized program. Focusing on proper diet and nutrition, maintaining appropriate body weight (you know that exercise is a great way to burn calories to allow you to eat those few special things that we all often crave!), and, choosing supplements carefully are good guidelines to follow. Always read the scientific literature, published from reliable sources, regarding supplements that you're considering. Not just the commercial, sales literature. You can end up spending a lot of money on supplements that really don't do what they say.

One of the most common questions asked is "who should I ask for professional assistance if I want some help in setting up and overseeing my program"? My advice is to always select a health care professional, with a bachelor's degree minimum, trained in fitness and wellness and, in the recognition and management of musculoskeletal issues. You're entrusting your most valuable possession -- your body! -- to someone, so chose carefully. An example is a certified athletic trainer whose skills apply to physically active people of all ages, because as the theme of this month's National Athletic Training Month says, "Not all athletes wear jerseys: athletic trainers treat the athlete in you." (3)

The NEW Fitness program for Boomers is one that must be customized to continue to maintain and improve fitness levels. And, to continue to enjoy the life of physical activity that Boomers have grown up with. Listen to your Body! And Modify!

(1) Arthritis Foundation: A Public Health Agenda for Osteoarthritis 2010.
(2) U.S. Department of Commerce. Facts for features -- January 3, 2006
(3) National Athletic Trainers' Association. Dallas, TX