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You can change how you think, feel, and act when you are older simply by changing how you think, feel, and act now, geriatrics experts say. Staying healthy, fit, and active are the keys to successful aging.
The Aging Population
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, by the year 2030, the number of individuals in the United States 65 years and over will reach 70 million, and people 85 years and older will be the fastest growing segment of the population. Some of you may already be there, while others may be approaching.
It's Never Too Late to Start Exercising
Whatever your age, exercise can help. George Burns (who lived to be 100) used to say, "If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself!" It's true that some individuals are blessed with good genes, and no matter how many unhealthy lifestyle habits they have, they're going to live into old age. But for the rest of us who might be concerned with quality of life as we age, exercise is one of the keys. Is it ever too late to start? Research proves it's not. This slideshow looks at our bodies as we age, the benefits of exercising into old age, and tips on how to get started no matter how old you are.
What Happens to Muscles As We Age?
Muscle mass decreases as we age. Beginning in the fourth decade of life, adults lose 3%-5% of muscle mass per decade, and the decline increases to 1%-2% per year after age 50. Muscle keeps us strong, it burns calories and helps us maintain our weight, and it contributes to balance and bone strength. Without it, we can lose our independence and our mobility.
Is It Ever Too Late to Build Muscle?
The good news is that muscle mass can increase at any age in response to exercise. In an important study of weight lifting and older adults conducted with 100 male and female residents of a nursing home in Boston (age range: 72 to 98 years of age; average age 87), subjects lifted weights with their legs three times a week for 10 weeks. At the end of the study, there was an increase in thigh mass of 2.7%, walking speed increased 12%, and leg strength increased a whopping 113%! In a similar study of adults 65-79 years old, subjects who lifted weights three times a week for three months increased their walking endurance by 38% (from 25 minutes to 34 minutes) without appreciable increases in mass.
Can I Get Stronger Without Building Big Muscles?
Importantly, strength isn't just a function of mass. It's also a function of something called "neurological patterning." In layman's terms, patterning is when the brain sends electrical signals via the nervous system to muscles to make them contract. The muscles move (and so do you) once the signal reaches them. The good news here is that muscle patterning improves within days of starting a weight-lifting program, even without any increase in muscle mass. This explains the 113% increase in strength experienced by the residents of the nursing home in Boston previously mentioned.
What Happens to Endurance As We Age?
Endurance declines as we age. But there is good news when it comes to fitness, walking endurance, and health. In one study of more than 3,000 70-79-year-old men and women, researchers investigated the relationship between the speed at which these subjects walked ¼ of a mile and their risk of premature mortality, cardiovascular disease, and mobility limitation. The results showed that those with the slowest walk times (>6 minutes) had a higher risk of death, cardiovascular disease, and mobility limitation than those who walked the distance in less than four and a half minutes. In fact, every additional minute of walking time was associated with higher and higher degrees of risk. In another equally impressive study, data collected on more than 41,000 men and women from 1990 to 2001 were analyzed to find the relationship between walking and mortality. It was reported that men and women who walked 30 minutes or more per day during the study period had fewer deaths than those who walked less than 30 minutes.
What Happens to Flexibility As We Age?
You guessed it. It decreases. The good news is that some studies, but not all, show improvements in function when individuals engage in exercise programs that involve stretching exercises. Unfortunately, the studies on flexibility in the aging population aren't as complete as they are for studies of strength and endurance, but the studies do suggest that significant improvements in the range of motion of various joints (neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee, and ankle) can occur when stretching exercises are prescribed.
What Happens to Balance As We Age?
Balance decreases as we age, and importantly, falling is a major problem as a result. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of every three Americans over the age of 65 falls each year, and among individuals 65-84, falls account for 87% of all fractures and are the second leading cause of spinal cord and brain injury. The good news is that physical activity can improve balance and reduce the risk of falling.
What Happens to Bones As We Age?
Bones tend to decrease in density as we age, and for some individuals, it can lead to osteoporosis. The bad news is that osteoporosis is responsible for more than 1.5 million fractures annually, including over 300,000 hip fractures, 700,000 vertebral fractures, 250,000 wrist fractures, and 300,000 fractures at other sites. The good news is that exercise can increase bone density in some older individuals. The precise amount and type of exercise necessary to accrue benefits is unknown, but encouragingly, research shows that weight lifting, and even just walking, can increase bone density in the hip and spine. The reason for the benefits may be that weight lifting causes stress on the bones as the muscles contract (which causes the bones to thicken), and the impact of walking also causes stress on the bones, which stimulates them to grow.
What Happens to Our Joints As We Age?
Many aging adults are susceptible to osteoarthritis (the type of arthritis that affects the bone by wearing down the cushion that pads the space between bones).
In a large study of 439 adults (aged 60 and older) with osteoarthritis who did either aerobic exercise (walking) or resistance exercise (weight lifting) for 18 months, participants in the aerobic exercise group had a 10% decrease on a physical disability questionnaire, a 12% lower score on a knee pain questionnaire, and outperformed individuals in the study who did not exercise on the following tests: a six-minute walk test (they walked further); the time it took them to climb and descend stairs; the time it took them to lift and carry 10 pounds; and the time it took them to get in and out of a car. In the weight lifting group, there was an 8% lower score on the physical disability questionnaire, 8% lower pain score, greater distance on the six-minute walk, and faster times on the lifting and carrying task and the car task than in the individuals in the study who did not exercise.
Does Exercise Help Cognitive Function?
One of the most exciting areas of exercise research is the investigation of cognitive function. What scientists have learned so far is that brain neurons, the special cells that help you think, move, perform all the bodily functions that keep you alive, and even help your memory, all increase in number after just a few days or weeks of regular physical activity.
Can Exercise Improve Mood?
Research suggests that as many as 14% of males and 18% of females over age 55 are depressed. It has been documented that exercise can alleviate symptoms of depression in younger adults and even compete with the effects of antidepressant medication or psychotherapy in terms of effectiveness, but unfortunately there is very little research on the effects of exercise and depression in older adults. What is fair to say is that exercise has a mood-elevating effect in most adults, whatever their age, even if it's not the cure for depression in the elderly. Talk to most anyone who exercises, no matter what their age, and they will report what used to be called a "feel-good" phenomenon after exercise. Whether it's from getting the heart beating or the blood pumping, or invigorating brain cells, or simply getting out in the fresh air, a good dose of exercise typically improves mood.
How Much Exercise Do I Need to Do for Health and Fitness?
The American College of Sports Medicine and American Heart Association published guidelines for physical activity in older adults. This chart shows a summary of the recommendations.
How Do I Get Started?
Be sure to check with your physician before beginning any kind of exercise program or physical activity.
There's no need to try and make up for years of inactivity overnight. In fact, you could get injured or burn out by doing so. Instead, start slowly and build up gradually. If that means starting with just five minutes of walking, then that's what you ought to do. In fact, one recommended plan for getting started is the five-minutes-out, five-minutes-back plan. Just like it sounds, you walk out for five minutes, turn around, and walk back. That's it...10 minutes of walking, and off you go about your day. When you feel ambitious, you can do seven and a half or even 10 minutes out and back, and add some stretching when you finish if you like. One of the best ways to get motivated and stay that way is to set goals.
Make a Weekly Exercise Plan
Write down what day(s) of the week, what time of day, minutes of activity, and the activity that you'll do. Be as specific and realistic as possible, and remember that it's not how much you do when you get started but that you simply get started. Keep setting and reviewing your goals weekly for at least three months. That way you'll be sure to stay on track and build exercise into your life as a habit.
Endurance and Aerobic Exercises
Endurance/aerobic exercises increase your breathing and heart rate. They improve the health of your heart, lungs, and circulatory system. Having greater endurance not only helps keep you healthier; it can also improve your stamina for the tasks you need to do to live and do things on your own -- climbing stairs and grocery shopping, for example. Endurance exercises also may delay or prevent many diseases associated with aging, such as diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease, stroke, and others, and reduce overall death and hospitalization rates.
Walking, dancing, biking, and swimming are all good options. Also check out your local senior center, rec center, Y, or local fitness center for classes that are appropriate for you. Many centers offer exercise classes for seniors. They're out there if you look.
Strength and Resistance Exercises
Strength/resistance exercises build your muscles, but they do more than just make you stronger. They give you more strength to do things on your own. Even very small increases in muscle can make a big difference in ability, especially for frail people. Strength exercises also increase your metabolism, helping to keep your weight and blood sugar in check. That's important because obesity and diabetes are major health problems for older adults. Studies suggest that strength exercises also may help prevent osteoporosis.
You don't need to pump iron in a gym to do resistance exercise. Of course, if you want to go to the gym, feel free to! But if you prefer to do it at home, you can with rubber exercise tubing and bands. These are terrific alternatives to dumbbells and other resistance exercise equipment. Exercise tubing and bands are inexpensive and versatile (you can do lots of exercises with them) and a great way to get started with resistance exercise. You can start with a set of four for about $20. They come in colors to denote the tension.
Flexibility exercises help keep your body limber by stretching your muscles and the tissues that hold your body's structures in place. Physical therapists and other health professionals recommend certain stretching exercises to help patients recover from injuries and to prevent injuries from happening in the first place. Flexibility also may play a part in preventing falls. Yoga and stretching classes are recommended. Check yoga centers in your neighborhood, local rec centers, senior centers, or the Y for classes. This is a great way to relax, improve your flexibility, and maybe even meet some new people! Instructional DVDs, videos, and books are also available.
Balance exercises help prevent a common problem in older adults: falls. Falling is a major cause of broken hips and other injuries that often lead to disability and loss of independence. Do some or all of these exercises every day for best results and have someone standing nearby to support you if you are concerned you might fall. Some balance exercises build up your leg muscles, such as heel raises and side leg raises, while others require you to do simple activities like briefly standing on one leg or touching your nose in various positions with your eyes closed.
Go for It!
There probably isn't anyone that can argue with the idea that exercise is good for you, no matter what your age. The most important thing is that it's never too late to start. Experience the joy and satisfaction of exercise - just getting started will do it. Go for it and give it your best shot.
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