Yes, there is a fountain of youth. It’s exercise. And adults over the age of 65 stand to gain tremendous benefits from staying active.
Breathe Hard for a Chance to Remember
Want to make sure your brain keeps working well into old age? Get moving. Exercising not only reduces the effects of aging but also combats some of the decline brought on by a previously sedentary lifestyle.
Researchers and physicians have long touted the cardiovascular benefits associated with exercise. In the past 10 years, however, an increasing body of research indicates that moderate aerobic exercise not only strengthens brain plasticity but also protects against age-related cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to change and adapt as a result of a person’s experiences. A recent study by Dr. Art Kramer from the Beckman Institute found that even six months of moderate aerobic exercise dramatically improved older adults’ abilities to plan, improvise and problem solve.
Participants in this study were assigned to an aerobic group or a stretching and toning group with both groups receiving the same amount of health instruction. The adults who participated in the aerobic group performed high intensity walking. Results showed that the adults who performed the aerobic activities not only became more physically fit but also reversed some of the age-related decline in mental processing.
According to this study, as well as other studies on exercise and aging, the brain retains its ability to increase the number of neurons and grow new neural connections even into old age as a result of aerobic exercise.
Aerobic exercise is the type of moderate activity that makes a person breathe a little heavier than normal. The Centers for Disease Control suggest that adults 65 years of age and older engage in moderate aerobic exercise at least 150 minutes per week – the length of time you might spend watching a good movie – which could be broken down into 30 minute sessions over five days.
Paige Edwards, a personal trainer at Hampton Hill Athletic Club, recommends first consulting with a physician before starting any type of exercise program. “The key to incorporating a new level of fitness into your routine is to start off gradually,” she says. “Beginners are more likely to overdo workouts, risking a muscle strain or some type of injury that leaves them frustrated, which is why consulting a physician is important.”
While Paige says exercise prescriptions for older adults can be difficult due to the various levels of health and fitness of adults, resistance and cardiovascular training are recommended at any age. “Both types of training can improve muscular strength, muscular endurance and bone density,” she says. “And for older adults, not exercising can lead to muscular weakness and frailty.”
Don’t have time to incorporate a full-blown exercise program into your routine? Paige suggests looking at exercise as a lifestyle instead of a task to check off your to-do list.
If you don’t normally take the stairs, set a goal to take them once or twice a week. Take a walk through the neighborhood and incorporate a slow jog or brisk walk into your workout the following week. Start with 10-minute cardio sessions and build up to at least 30 minutes, five times a week.
“Your workout must be intense enough to stress the pulmonary, cardiovascular and muscular systems without overtaxing them in order to reap maximum benefit,” she adds. “Exercise is clearly one of the best weapons we have against aging.”
Lift for Your Joints and Bones
Paul Lomas, director of Doctors Wellness Center and a licensed physical therapist, describes exercise as one of the best things you can do to protect joints and bones. “Motion is lotion for joints,” he says. “When we move, we actually lubricate the joints with synovial fluid which can relieve pressure from arthritis and other joint conditions.”
Since muscle atrophy picks up steam after age 30, Paul recommends muscle strengthening exercises that involve all major muscle groups twice a week. He says strength training helps build and maintain bone density at any age; however, older adults who are at greater risk of developing osteoporosis will benefit tremendously.
“The body responds to weight bearing exercises by increasing bone density,” he says, “which is especially important for the spine and hip joints where low bone density is more prevalent. When the bone is stressed, it becomes stronger.”
Studies have also shown that walking prevents bone loss in the spine while strength training has been shown to build bone mass in the spine and hip. Since bone is a living tissue and requires continuous turnover, it will respond to exercise.
Resistance exercises can include the use of dumbbells, weight bars, bands or machines. For adults who lack access to a gym or wellness center, Doctors Wellness will design an at-home exercise plan that involves a band, a ball and weights. In as little as two workouts per week, Paul says adults can begin strengthening the trunk and lower extremities, which ultimately will improve balance, mobility and function.
Stretch and Strike a Pose
Attend any fitness class and watch the masses exit after the cardio session. Stretching is often viewed as secondary to focusing on muscle strength and cardio fitness; however, older adults who don’t stretch may be setting themselves up for serious falls.
The Centers for Disease Control report that one out of three adults age 65 and older fall each year, and 30 percent of those falls cause serious injury requiring medical treatment.
Dr. Margaret Matthews, a geriatric physician at Palmetto Health, emphasizes stretching. “As we age, flexibility naturally decreases,” she says, “which makes older adults especially prone to injury. When muscles are warm and stretched, they’re less likely to incur injury from an abrupt movement.”
She recommends that flexibility and balance exercises be part of a daily exercise routine. “Keeping joints flexible allows the muscles and joints to work better to achieve balance with all activities of daily living,” she says.
Not sure how to start a stretching or balance program? Beginners may feel more comfortable in a group setting. Tai Chi, yoga and Pilates are offered at many gyms and wellness centers; however, Dr. Matthews first recommends discussing any chronic pain or muscle disorder with a credentialed professional to determine the ideal exercise program and to avoid exercises that could aggravate any health conditions.
Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese martial art, has been shown to reduce the number of falls in older adults. Dr. Matthews says deep breathing and focus on core body strength aids balance; however, she says most adults do not engage in adequate amounts of dynamic balance training to make an improvement in their fall risk. Tai Chi involves alternating the body’s weight loads from one foot to two feet while doing postures and poses. This continuous exchange between loading and unloading weight stabilizes and builds core strength, which in turn improves balance.
Older adults participating in an eight-week yoga program showed increased hip extension and stride length, which normally decreases with age. These and other studies suggest that tailored stretching and weight lifting programs offer significant ways to prevent falls.
It’s never too late to start an exercise program. If you want to enjoy many years of mobility and health, seriously consider an exercise regime that’s tailored to your lifestyle. Just five days of exercising could add years to your life. Now, that’s a return on your investment.