Robert Jacobsen is more than passionate about getting people to exercise. He has a treadmill and other workout machines and equipment at his home in Venice. During our interview, he not only notices and comments on my expanding midriff — but takes me through a simple set of stomach crunches on a large exercise ball to fix the problem.
“I get a lot of satisfaction seeing people improve,” he says with a smile.
Jacobsen holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in exercise physiology and has been developing fitness programs for seniors for a number of years. From 2004 to 2007, he was the exercise physiologist for the Chicago Department on Aging, which works with more than 440,000 people.
Since becoming a six-month snowbird, he has taught “Senior Fitness Plus” classes in Venice and at Colonial Oaks Park in Sarasota. He also conducts individual classes in ambulation for people having difficulty walking.
“I’m very good at ambulation work,” he says. “Walking and the muscles involved with it is what I know best.”
Jacobsen has taught kinesiology — the study of muscles that move bones — at the college level and bases a good part of his classes on observing and analyzing people’s gaits.
To clarify, he gets up and demonstrates the seven stages of walking: toe push-off, acceleration, midpoint, deceleration, heel strike, foot flat on the ground, and midstance. Then it all repeats.
“Each one of those stages has specific muscle groups that act in coordination with other muscle groups,” Jacobsen explains. “If any of them are off, you don’t walk well; if you stop walking, everything else stops, too.”
That’s why about 40 percent of his classes deal with exercising the muscles involved in walking — the only ones in the human body big enough to keep your heart healthy. According to Jacobsen, once you stop using them, you reduce your cardiac output and start gaining weight.
That creates a negative loop: You get heavier, atrophy from disuse, reduce muscle mass, generate more body fat, and increase blood pressure.
As glucose sensitivity goes down, you also become prone to-adult onset diabetes — which, in turn, leads to sensory and motor neuropathy, which affects the way you walk. For example, you lose the ability to feel surfaces and can no longer make minute adjustments on an uneven ground, which affects balance. Similarly, the dorsal flexors, which allow the toes to lift, no longer operate, leading to tripping and falling.
“After 65, the biggest worries are not the IRS, but the onset of adult diabetes and falling,” Jacobsen says.
Walking can prevent all that.
“We’ve been riding bikes for about 100 years. We’ve been swimming repetitively for about 150 years. But we’ve been walking for about three and a half million years!” he enthuses. “It’s a fundamental thing.”
For Jacobsen that translates into a primary connection between walking and heart function.
Imagine having a hollow tube from your heart to your feet that measures blood pressure in terms of weight. When you’re standing, on average that column of blood would weigh 95 milligrams.
The moment you start walking, it reduces to 25 milligrams. The contracting muscles are called “the venous return pump,” because they push blood back to the heart. “It’s really a supercharger for your heart,” Jacobsen says.
The heart pumps the blood back out in greater quantities, which opens up places in the body for oxygenation and burns calories. That starts to reverse the negative spiral and creates all kinds of benefits for the body.
The extra weight some people carry matters a lot, Jacobsen points out. Let’s say you walk a mile in steps of two feet each. That’s about 2,600 steps.
If you’re 10 pounds overweight, you’re absorbing 26,000 pounds of additional kinetic energy, or 13 tons! Now think about what 25 or 50 extra pounds will do.
The multiplied energy load destroys cartilage.
“The body was designed to hold you up,” Jacobsen says. “But you’ve picked up a hitchhiker 10 years ago, and now you have to have your hip or knee replaced.”
At a time when pharmacological and medical advances have vastly expanded people’s life expectancy, Jacobsen believes how we treat our bodies is critical.
“Many of us now live into our 80s. That’s a 15-to-20-year bonus.
“It can be a time spent with family and grandkids and doing all the things you want to do; or it can be lying in a hospital bed, watching life go by though a window — and the only extended family you have is your heath care givers,” he warns. “One is a bonus; the other is a sentence.”
From 50 to 65, the things that are important to health and maintenance — range of motion, bone density, muscle mass, cardiac output, balance and cognitive skill — all start to diminish. Exercise can help slow down that process.
“It’s a period of preparation,” Jacob insists. “How you treat yourself then becomes the foundation for what your life will be like from 65 to 85.”
Walking may not be the only way to improve our odds for a better, healthier life in the senior years, but Jacobsen swears by it.
“If you keep doing it, it will keep you healthy,” he promises.
HOW TO GET BACK ON YOUR FEET
How should you get going if you haven’t been walking regularly?
1. Check your arches. If they have flattened, make sure you have good support. You can pick up good orthotic inserts in any pharmacy.
2. Get a good pair of shoes.
3. Make sure you don’t walk with an antalgic gait — a kind of listing or limping — which results from adjusting because of pain. It usually occurs when people are bothered by a hangnail, bone spur or chronic muscle weakness. For example, as men age, they put on weight in their midsection and start pulling themselves forward. That leads to hip flexion contraction: Their muscles get shorter and they start bending forward, which shortens their gait. If you have a weakness in your quadriceps, you can’t bend the 40 degrees it takes in the wing phase to clear the ground, and you have to make adjustments or you’ll trip.
“It’s like a car that pulls to the left or right,” Jacobsen explains. “You’re going to have it looked at because you want to drive safely.”
January 28, 2013
By Chris Angermann