Retirees need to stay strong and flexible to do the things they want to do for the years ahead.

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It's critical for retirees to develop physical activity plans for their golden years just as they do financial plans, says a leading national expert on physical activity and aging.

Retirees need to do physical activities that will keep them strong and flexible so they can continue to do the things they want to do for years to come — whether that's playing with their grandchildren, living independently or going on vacations, says Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, head of the department of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"In retirement, you have more opportunities than ever before of building a physical activity program that makes sense for you," says Chodzko-Zajko, editor of the American College of Sports Medicine's recent book on exercise for older adults. He also worked on the National Institute on Aging's physical activity guidebook and sample exercises.

There are plenty of reasons to be physically active as you age. Research shows regular exercise reduces the risk of early death, helps control weight and lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression, some types of cancer, anxiety disorders, cognitive decline and hip fractures. It may be as effective as medication in preventing early death in people who've had heart attacks or strokes.

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Aerobic activities, strength training and flexibility exercises can help retirees preserve muscle and bone mass, feel young and be better able to do the activities of daily living, such as putting items on shelves and even holding the grandkids, says Felicia Stoler, a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist in Holmdel, N.J.

Here are some steps to establishing an exercise plan:

1. Set several short-term goals. Make a plan to walk daily with your spouse or a friend. Buy a couple of new exercise DVDs, and do them a few times a week. Sign up for some exercise classes or several sessions with a personal trainer to learn some new weight-training exercises. Make plans to play golf, tennis or go ballroom dancing on a regular basis.

Chodzko-Zajko says it's a good idea to discuss any proposed change in activity level with your doctor, but not having a doctor should not be an excuse for inactivity and sedentary living. The vast majority of older Americans can find a safe and effective activity program that works for them, he says.

2. Establish long-term goals. After you start walking more, try to gradually increase the amount of time you walk. Set a goal for six months and a year. Ditto if you're swimming laps or riding a bike. Consider taking up some of the sports you used to love: Golf (walk, don't take the cart), cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, canoeing, swimming. Take active vacations: hiking, walking in state and national parks, cycling.

3. Track your steps. Buy an inexpensive pedometer or a tracker such as a FitBit or Nike+ FuelBand. "These are hugely motivating," Chodzko-Zajko says. Research suggests that people in this country take an average of about 5,000 steps a day, but experts recommend taking at least 10,000 steps a day. A mile is roughly 2,000 to 2,500 steps, depending on stride length. Challenge yourself and work up to 15,000 steps a day, which would put you in the high-activity group.

4. Meet the government's aerobic guidelines. To get substantial health benefits from exercise, the government recommends that adults do at least 2½ hours of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, such as brisk walking, or 1¼ hours of a vigorous-intensity activity, such as jogging or swimming laps, or a combination of the two. For more health benefits, do five hours of moderate-intensity physical activity each week or 2½ hours of vigorous activity.

5. Do muscle-strengthening activities regularly. The government guidelines recommend that strength training exercises done at a moderate- or high-intensity level for all major muscle groups two or more days a week. This should include exercises for the chest, back, shoulders, upper legs, hips, abdomen and lower legs. The exercises can be done with free weights, machines or calisthenics that use body weight for resistance (push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups), or carrying heavy loads or doing heavy gardening, such as digging or hoeing. These are critical for both strong muscles and bones. "Strength exercises are essential in preventing sarcopenia — the loss of lean body mass that accompanies the aging process," Stoler says.

6. Do balance exercises if you are at risk of falling. There are some simple exercises you can do to help with balance, such as standing on one foot or toe stands, but for safety purposes, always stand next to something that you can hold onto if you become unsteady, Stoler says. "Yoga and tai chi help with balance, and classes are commonly offered at beginner levels."

7. Look for easy ways to do more physical activity. Walk around the room while you're watching TV instead of sitting on the sofa, Chodzko-Zajko says. Combine your trip to the mall with a few extra laps of the shopping center. Go salsa dancing.

8. Work in some flexibility exercises. Stretching muscles keeps the body limber, Stoler says. The secret is to stretch muscles that have been warmed up such as with a brisk walk. Static stretching involves passively stretching a muscle to the point of mild discomfort and holding for 10 to 60 seconds, depending on how you feel, without bouncing, she says.

For a free copy of the National Institute on Aging's Go4Life sample exercise routine and free DVD, go to go4life.nia.nih.gov or call 800-222-2225. The workout includes instructions on how to do 13 exercises, including a wall push-up, toe stand, back stretch and ankle stretch.

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