Stanford’s Lifestyle Medicine Chief: Staying Fit After 50

He works with student athletes and 89-year-old marathon runners, and helps more sedentary seniors get moving, too.

By Eleanor O'Sullivan

Dr. Mike Fredericson has what you might call a Superman persona; he’s a pleasant-looking and soft-spoken person, but behind the externals beats the heart of a holder of a 7th degree black belt in karate.

“That’s pretty high, there’s not a ton in the United States who hold that degree. The highest is the 10th degree,’’ Fredericson said by telephone from Stanford University’s Redwood City location.

Fredericson, who is a professor of orthopedics at Stanford Medicine and head of the lifestyle medicine program at Stanford, among numerous affiliations, is a lifelong martial arts practitioner.

“I was raised in Cleveland, and I actually started out to learn self-defense as a teenager because the high school I went to was kind of a rough school. There were a lot of fights, so I wanted to be able to handle myself,” he said.

“Then, it became more than that,” he said. “It became ‘What is sort of the art of it?’ That is what keeps you going for years — that seeking perfection. Karate is very formal.’’

Physical and mental fitness after 50

What has kept Fredericson going for 64 years, and looking 20 years younger, is the pursuit of physical fitness combined with the art of mental fitness. As an orthopedic physician, he aims to help people maintain bone and body strength and avoid surgery.

Fredericson specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) to diagnose, treat and prevent sports injuries. He is the first physician promoted to professor of PM&R at Stanford University.

If you’re age 50+, Fredericson believes that tai chi, the ancient Chinese martial art, is an excellent exercise to achieve a combination of mind and body movement.

“It has a number of health benefits: it’s a sort of moving meditation, learning how to really ground your body, and relax your body. It’s moving your ‘chi,’ Chinese for your energy in your body,” he said.

“The tai chi movements require flexibility of all the joints in the body, and it requires strength, as well as endurance. It is a gentler on the body and you can do it for the rest of your life,” said Fredericson.

“There have been over 700 studies documenting the health benefits of tai chi. As well as improving bone density, it strengthens the immune system, lower body strength, flexibility, even cognitive performance,’’ he said.

No time to waste

Fredericson’s other affiliations include being head physician for the Stanford University track and field and swimming teams. He’s an advocate of starting exercising in one’s childhood, and pursuing a variety of athletics to achieve strength, endurance and flexibility.

The need to get that word out is urgent, he said.

“If you look at the whole population, we are in worse shape than earlier generations. America is not actually doing a great job in overall fitness among the overall population.

“Ironically, there are more people who are 60 who are still functioning like they’re 40, 50 or even younger, but, not as a total population.

“Why? Because we still have an obesity epidemic. There are a number of driving forces behind it. A lot of people are not very active, and sitting too much. And part of it is the American diet. We know that too much sugar and too much saturated fat are not good,” he says.

A menu for better health

“I highly recommend the Mediterranean diet. It’s pretty easy to follow for most people. It’s really emphasizing fresh fruit, vegetables and grains, but it allows you to have lean meat, fish, poultry. It’s basically staying away from processed food, and extra sugary things.’’

Fredericson said a purely plant-based diet “can be very healthy, but it’s not practical for a lot of people. It makes it a bit more challenging to get protein.

“As we get older, our need for protein goes up because we don’t synthesize protein as well. We start to lose muscle mass, so we need to do more resistance training. The current RDA (recommended daily allowance set by the federal USDA and Health and Human Services), calls for 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. People who are 50 and older need more than that!’’

A source for information on nutritional needs is available here.

Fredericson recommends protein be eaten at each meal, rather than loading up on it at the evening meal, a common habit among Americans.

Get up from your desk

In his recent posting on Stanford University’s Longevity Project website, Fredericson recommends at least 30 minutes of movement a day. For those who can’t spare 30 minutes in one chunk, he suggests three 10-minute walks.

Financial advisors who are captives of their desk and computer should do the following, he says.

“You really need to get up every half hour and walk around for at least five minutes. This is the minimum. You should not be sitting all day, or sitting for extended periods.”

“Ideally, find time for a break at lunch to go for a longer walk, or maybe get in a full exercise session. That is helpful. Or maybe just get up from your desk and do push-ups, squats, a short stretching routine. Go up and down the stairs a few times,” said Fredericson.

“The idea is that people need to stay moving throughout the day. Even little bursts of activity — go rake the leaves in the yard, or take the stairs versus the elevator, walk to the grocery store, carry your groceries home, run to catch the bus — that can add up.’’

Non-surgical solutions

In recent years, Fredericson became a member of the board of trustees of the Association of Academic Physiatrists.

“Physiatry is really non-surgical orthopedics, essentially sports medicine,” he said. “We are really trying to find ways to keep people active and healthy without surgery.” This includes physical therapy and different types of injections, including steroid injections, stem cell injections and PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injections.
“We’re working with a variety of athletes at Stanford, and then there are the 89-year-olds who are still trying to run marathons, or whatever their athletic goal is,’’ says Fredericson.

More workout ideas

Aside from tai chi, “anything in the water is great” for older adults, he said, as is cycling and the elliptical (machine). He said these exercises should be done a couple of times a week, and that strength training and balance workouts are very important for someone 50+.

Fredericson said balance problems that come with age can come from changes in the middle ear. “That’s part of it, as are changes in the peripheral nervous system. The sensory endings at the end of our hands and feet are not quite as sensitive as you get older,’’ he said.

Bone and muscle mass loss from aging can be countered by some type of impact activity, said Fredericson.

“You build up your bone until mid 20s, maybe 30, then you are just holding on to it for the rest of your life,” he said.

“We found that when you are younger, if you do more multiple-directional sports, that’s good for your bones,” he said. “You want to do a variety of activities in different sports that are really good for your bones when you’re younger, then as you age, you have more to own.’’

In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was the movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.


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