WASHINGTON (AP) - Baby boomers say their biggest health fear is cancer. Given their waistlines, heart disease and diabetes should be atop that list, too.
Boomers are more obese than other generations, a new poll finds, setting them up for unhealthy senior years.
And for all the talk of "60 is the new 50" and active aging, even those who aren't obese need to do more to stay fit, according to the Associated Press-LifeGoesStrong.com poll.
The government says most adults should get 2.5 hours a week of physical activity that revs their heart rates, but baby boomers are falling short on that requirement.
Most baby boomers say they get some aerobic exercise, the kind that revs up your heart rate, at least once a week. But most adults are supposed to get 2.5 hours a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity - things like a brisk walk, a dance class, pushing a lawn mower. Only about a quarter of boomers polled report working up a sweat four or five times a week, what the average person needs to reach that goal.
Worse, 37 percent never do any of the strength training so crucial to fighting the muscle loss that comes with aging.
Walking is their most frequent form of exercise. The good news: Walk enough and the benefits add up.
Tips for getting enough activity
- The recommendation is for moderate-intensity physical activity, things like a brisk walk, water
aerobics, cutting grass with a push mower, taking
a dance class, doubles tennis.
- Just doing 10 minutes at a time counts. A few
10-minute activities each day add up.
- If you've been sedentary, build up gradually.
- If you prefer more vigorous activity - like jogging or singles tennis or a fast bike ride - the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 75 minutes a week is sufficient. One minute of vigorous activity counts for two minutes of moderate activity.
- The CDC says moderate-intensity means you're not breathing too hard to talk but you couldn't sing.
- In addition to the aerobic activity, the CDC urges muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week. That can range from digging in the garden and yoga to push-ups or lifting weights.
"I have more energy, and my knees don't hurt anymore," says Maggie Sanders, 61, of Abbeville, S.C. She has lost 15 pounds by walking four miles, three times a week, over the past few months, and eating better.
More boomers need to heed that feel-good benefit. Based on calculation of body mass index from self-reported height and weight, roughly a third of the baby boomers polled are obese, compared with about a quarter of both older and younger responders. Only half of the obese boomers say they are are regularly exercising.
An additional 36 percent of boomers are overweight, though not obese.
The nation has been bracing for a surge in Medicare costs as the 77 million baby boomers, the post-war generation born from 1946 to 1964, begin turning 65. Obesity - with its extra risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis - will further fuel those bills.
"They're going to be expensive if they don't get their act together," says Jeff Levi of the nonprofit Trust for America's Health. He points to a study that found Medicare pays 34 percent more on an obese senior than one who's a healthy weight.
About 60 percent of boomers polled say they're dieting to lose weight, and slightly more are eating more fruits and vegetables or cutting cholesterol and salt.
But it takes physical activity, not just dieting, to shed pounds. That's especially important as people start to age and dieting alone could cost them precious muscle in addition to fat, says Jack Rejeski of Wake Forest University, a specialist in exercise and aging.
Whether you're overweight or just the right size, physical activity can help stave off the mobility problems that too often sneak up on the sedentary as they age. Muscles gradually become flabbier until people can find themselves on the verge of disability and loss of independence, like a canoe that floats peacefully until it gets too near a waterfall to pull back, Rejeski says.
He led a study that found a modest weight loss plus walking 2 hours a week helped people 60 and older significantly improve their mobility. Even those who didn't walk that much got some benefit. Try walking 10 minutes at a time two or three times a day, he suggests, and don't wait to start.
"I don't think there's any question the earlier you get started, the better," says Rejeski, who at 63 has given up running in favor of walking, and gets in 30 miles a week. "If you allow your mobility to decline, you pay for it in terms of the quality of your own life."