When you think of healthy physical aging, what does that look like? Being of sound mind and body? Being able to perform and fully participate in all of your daily activities? Loving life and having minimal physical limitations?
People naturally recognize those who seem to be thriving as they navigate through life’s journey — they’re vibrant, active, and seemingly can handle whatever life throws at them. What, then, are the common traits and activities behind this resilience? It turns out that consistent movement and challenge to the body play a meaningful role in maintaining good physical health as you age.
Before implementing these in your daily life, consider the common issues that can affect how the body ages. Changes in the various physical processes that regulate bone mass, muscle mass, and overall function result in potential challenges to bone and joint health, muscular health, strength and resilience, and overall activity tolerance.
Of particular concern is the increased likelihood of debilitating bone fractures as a result of a decline in bone mass over time, as characterized in osteopenia and osteoporosis. In fact, osteoporosis and low bone mass are currently estimated to be a major public health threat for almost 44 million women and men aged 50 and older in the United States. That represents 55 percent of the population in that age group, and current statistics show that one in three women and one in five men over the age of 50 will experience osteoporotic fractures in their lifetime!
Joint problems can become significantly more common as the body ages. The presence of osteoarthritis, or inflammation of the joints, can be increased as bone health and muscular strength diminish and overall activity levels decline, leading to more stress on the joints.
In addition to declines in bone and joint health, muscular decline can be present in the form of age-related reduction in muscle mass, called sarcopenia, and age-related loss of muscular strength, or dynapenia. Muscle mass tends to be lost at a rate of 1 to 2 percent per year and muscular strength declines by 15 percent each decade after the age of 50.
An additional concerning aspect of age-related changes is deconditioning in older adults. The prevalence of sedentary lifestyles as you age contributes significantly to the increased risk of diminished bone density and muscular mass and strength due to the lack of strain on the body from minimal physical activity. Many of the physical issues that are typically blamed on aging are most likely due to deconditioning from not being active and challenging the body.
However, you can minimize your risk of functional physical decline and optimize your life by applying two factors consistently in your daily routine.
Exercise and Physical Challenge
In recent years the phrase “exercise is medicine” has become a growing hallmark of the medical and fitness communities. In an article in the scientific journal Ageing Research Reviews, the authors noted, “To date, physical exercise is the only intervention consistently demonstrated to attenuate functional decline among older adults.” Consistent exercise performance has a significant amount of short- and long-term benefits. Improved sleep, anxiety levels, and blood pressure are gains in the short term, and improved brain and heart health, bone strength, and chronic disease prevention are benefits in the long term. It truly is “medicine” for your body!
How Do You Get Started?
Always consult your physician before beginning an exercise program, and if you’re unsure of where to start or would like guidance on proper implementation, seek out a medical and/or fitness professional in your area who specializes in working with older adults.
Current CDC physical activity recommendations for older adults advise at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week in the form of aerobic exercise, strength training, balance, and flexibility activities. When determining moderate to vigorous activity levels for aerobic exercise, consider a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 would be at rest and 10 would be working as hard as you can. Moderate activity on this scale would be considered a 5 or 6 and vigorous a 7 or 8. It’s important to perform a variety of intensity in these activities to optimize the benefit, striving for 20 to 30 minutes a day, multiple days per week.
Aerobic exercises that are easily performed are walking, hiking, running/jogging, group classes, yoga, rowing, swimming, water aerobics, cycling both stationary and outdoors, and challenging yard work. All of these activities serve to challenge the body’s cardiovascular system to enable improvements in endurance and activity tolerance. If you’re new to this or haven’t exercised in a while, start slowly. Your body has the remarkable ability to adapt and change as you start something different, but make sure to ease into performance to avoid doing too much too soon.
Strength training is often the most intimidating and least performed aspect of the exercise guidelines, but it is by far the most important for bone, joint, and muscular health. The body’s structures must be challenged and loaded consistently to preserve function and to optimize tissue strength and resilience. Resistance exercise consisting of proper loading of bone results in higher bone mass and density across the lifespan and causes a significant slowing of osteoporosis/osteopenia progression in older adults. Additionally, age-related reductions in muscle mass and strength can be significantly improved with consistent strength training while also reversing the effects of deconditioning.
Any strength training program for the older adult should consist of varied, functional movements, with the key being that the exercises need to be challenging sufficiently to cause change in the body. The human body is remarkably resilient, and the mistake of not challenging and loading the body enough is very common. You need to perform hard exercises and lift heavier weights to load the body properly for optimal benefit. Challenge is the key!
A great starting point for implementing strength training in your life and exercise routine is to relate this to the movements you do every day. For most, five functional movements are essential in daily life: pushing, pulling, squatting, hinging, and carrying. A strength training program focusing on these movements can be used to varying degrees to properly challenge you and improve your ability to perform these daily activities.
Pushing — Chest presses, pushups, and overhead presses directly relate to daily functional tasks such as pushing open a door, pushing a shopping cart, or lifting objects to a higher shelf in the kitchen.
Pulling — Rows, rowing machines, and deadlifts directly relate to pulling open a door, performing housekeeping activities such as vacuuming, and picking up objects from the ground.
Squatting — Moving from standing to sitting and back to standing, whether only with body weight or holding a weight or object, directly relates to getting up and down from a chair and also assists with functional leg strength for navigating stairs.
Hinging — Bending forward from your hips directly relates to your body’s ability to bend over to pick up an object or to lean forward to reach into a cabinet.
Carrying — Holding weights at your side or in front of you while performing a controlled walk directly relates to your ability to carry grocery bags into your home, hold a grandchild, and move heavier objects.
While these are only a small sample of how functional strength training can be applied, multiple ways can be used to adjust these base exercises to your ability level to ensure safety and optimal benefit. If you’re not sure, reach out to a qualified health care professional, such as a physical therapist or a personal trainer, who is familiar with strength training for the older adult.
Incorporating balance activities into your exercise programming enables you to be safe and stable as you age. This is often worked on and challenged in the exercises being performed in aerobic and strength training activities and is essential in training your body to maintain stability throughout your daily life. Balance training can be as simple as standing on one leg while holding onto your counter and can progress to activities that are quite challenging such as backward stepping and carrying objects on unstable surfaces. Training your body to have the strength, endurance, and resilience to react appropriately when you do lose your balance can be the difference in preventing falls and injury.
It is important to maintain and improve your ability to move well as you age. Activities such as daily stretching, yoga, and pilates are great ways to improve and maintain your flexibility.
Ultimately, exercise and movement are indeed “medicine” for your body. Overwhelming evidence supports the importance of consistent physical activity in overall wellness and healthy aging. If you’re able to challenge yourself consistently and stay physically active, the dividends are an improved quality of life in which you thrive and meet every physical challenge with strength and resilience.
Do hard things, challenge yourself physically, and live the life you want!