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Health

Moving forward

Simple stretching and exercising can help fend off effects of aging

David Daniel, 66, of Westford exercises several days a week.

Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe

David Daniel, 66, of Westford exercises several days a week.

Frank Sinatra’s “The September of My Years’’ plays as David Daniel moves into the cat stretch. On a yoga mat in his Westford den, the 66-year-old writer arches his back after a long day teaching English at a charter school.

“I like to work out to this record because it’s all about moving into the autumn stages of life,’’ said the white-haired gent in a T-shirt and shorts. “It’s about the bittersweetness of leaving your salad days behind.’’

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Time does march on, but the negative effects of aging don’t have to accompany you every step of the way. Simple exercise such as a half hour of yoga a few days a week can be the difference between staying spry or lapsing into a sloth-like lump reaching for the remote.

“There is significant benefit from walking briskly for an hour a day. The tests are pretty compelling,’’ said Alberto Ascherio, a 57-year-old nutrition professor at Harvard School of Public Health who bikes to work and swims several days a week. “People shouldn’t feel that they have to do a certain exercise. Any level of exercising is better than none.’’

Lacing up her sneakers and heading out the door works for Deb Belanger of Lowell. “I don’t even feel like I’m exercising half the time, I try to make it social,’’ said Belanger, 54, who meets a friend for a power walk around the Merrimack River.

When the weather cooperates, Belanger’s favorite place for physical exertion is her pool. Diving into the water after a frustrating morning at work, a smile comes over her face. The aboveground pool is not big enough for laps, so she walks counterclockwise for a few minutes and then changes direction.

“I don’t have a set routine. I just know I have to move,’’ Belanger said, stretching her quads underwater.

After she was diagnosed with diabetes in January, Belanger took a more serious look at her lifestyle. Staying committed to regular workouts and eating healthy helped her lose 30 pounds. “It’s slow and steady,’’ she said as her water walk accelerates into a run and then the crawl.

Staying fit as you age doesn’t always mean getting into a size 4 pair of designer jeans. “Even if you don’t lose weight, there is a big difference in someone who is sedentary and involved in physical activity. Exercise remains important, losing weight is not the only reason,’’ Ascherio said.

Aerobic exercise can fend off a stroke or cardiac arrest, but weight training should be part of your routine to prevent bone loss and osteoporosis. “As you age you’re losing muscle,’’ Ascherio said.

Whether it’s dumbbells at the gym, a makeshift pull-up bar or push-ups at home, people should engage in something they enjoy, he said. Low-impact activities are ideal for avoiding injuries.

“With team sports, you have a sudden burst of intensity,’’ Ascherio said. “You run very fast. Do activities such as biking, hiking - anything where you are in control of the amount of intensity.’’

After decades of false starts, Gail Horan of Needham finally found an exercise that makes her spring out of bed in the morning.

“Pilates hurt my neck. Aerobics is just boring. The treadmill? Boring,’’ said Horan, a real estate broker in her mid-60s.

Now three times a week she cha-cha-chas her way into the best shape of her life with the fitness regimen Nia.

“There’s a lot of dance, tai chi, and yoga,’’ said Horan, who takes Nia at the Boston Sports Club in Wellesley. “I just love it. It’s like a dance class. You act a little crazy. It’s such a variety.’’

The dance-based fitness routine incorporates healing arts and martial arts and is about empowerment as much as toned calves. “No. No. No . . . Yes. Yes. Yes,’’ a dozen barefoot women shout as they cop a warrior stance.

“I feel better, mentally, physically, in every way,’’ Horan, a grandmother of four, said after the hourlong class. “I recognized the combination of physical and spiritual. I knew right away I wanted to do it.’’

Nia not only eases her seasonal depression; it helps her deal with a condition called fibromyalgia, stiffness in the knees and hips. If she doesn’t stay active the condition accelerates.

Daniel has become less militant about his physical activity in the past decade. The former tennis player and marathoner used to push himself to the brink in his 20s through 40s.

“I’m less neurotic,’’ he said. “Now I find I’m doing things for the fun of it, the byproduct is the health part.’’

He works out several days a week, mixing it up between the gym, running in the woods, and weight training at home. Yoga is a new interest that surprised the Army veteran.

“It’s nothing I ever did in my whole life,’’ Daniel said. “I always thought it was a sissy thing, or I felt I didn’t need it. I don’t pass judgment anymore.’’

Since practicing yoga, Daniel says his range of motion is better than it has been in years. He is no longer tight in the morning. He picks things up off the floor easier and can mount stairs at school with as much, if not more, agility than his students.

“I’ve got strength to do things that I want to do and I’m not feeling handicapped by age,’’ he said.

Kathleen Pierce can be reached at kmdpierce@gmail.com.
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