Active Aging

Think you’re too old to exercise? Think again.
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Illustration by Nadia Divakova

Sir Isaac Newton said that a body in motion stays in motion. He might have had physics in mind, but you could say the same principle applies to the human body. Research shows that physical activity, even in adults who don’t develop an exercise habit until late in life, supports overall health and well-being as it helps prevent or even reverse disease and disorders that can occur with age. So, although you might need to scale back your athletic ambitions over time, you shouldn’t give up and resign yourself to the couch.

“When I work with older adults, they might still be just as active, but their goals are reshaped” from, say, running a 7-minute mile to simply staying active to maintain health and fitness and feel good, says Summer Cook, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise science in the department of kinesiology at UNH in Durham. “Absolutely, we should continue to exercise all throughout our lifespan.”

Indeed, there are lots of benefits related to physical activity at any age, says Masooma Athar, M.D., C.M.D., medical director and section chief of the department of geriatrics at Elliot Health System. “I tell my patients, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it.’ … The more active you are, the more benefit you’ll see over time.”

What about body parts that ache, creak, groan or pop — which is common in older bodies? Most often, they are not a reason to skip exercise, although in some cases workout modifications might be necessary. Consult with your doctor, and do not exercise through excruciating pain, of course, but some discomfort during and after exercise is acceptable and even expected, especially if you work muscles that have been neglected for years. “A lot of times, those little aches will get better as we exercise,” Cook says. “As our body gets warmed up, there’s more blood flow to the muscle,” and over time, we gain better mobility.

Exercise can also combat the natural declines in muscle and bone density that begin when we are relatively young. Strong muscles support joints, and minerally dense bones help protect us from bone fractures, which are a major problem among older adults.

“Weight-bearing exercise is the most important thing that older adults can do to slow the loss of bone-mineral density,” Cook says. “If we exercise all throughout our lifespan and do weight-bearing exercises, we’re going to have a pretty slow loss of bone-mineral density.”

Examples of weight-bearing exercises include walking, jogging, dancing, playing tennis or pickleball, and strengthening activities such as working out with dumbbells, weight machines at a gym, or body weight to perform push-ups, lunges and squats.

If you’re new to exercise, check with your doctor about which types of exercise are safe for you and then gradually build up to what you can tolerate, Athar says. Individuals who are unsure of which exercises to do or how to do them might also want to work with a physical therapist or certified personal trainer to develop a program that is tailored for their needs. Beginners and longtime exercisers alike should aim to perform weight-bearing exercises at least twice a week.

In addition to strength training, don’t forget to include in your workout regimen exercises that require balance. Just as muscle mass and bone density decline as we age, so does our ability to balance, which contributes to the falls that are common among older adults. Balance exercises become important, Cook says, especially by the time we enter our 50s or 60s.

Even people who have osteoporosis and worry about injury during workouts can benefit from exercise. After receiving guidance as to which activities are safe for them, “exercise in general should not be avoided by people that have low bone-mineral density, and it actually can be very helpful,” Cook says.

Similarly, individuals who suffer from arthritis, although they might need to modify the amount or type of exercise they do, can work out in ways that do not overly strain arthritic joints. Yoga, rowing, cycling, swimming and water aerobics can be excellent choices for people who have arthritis, Athar says.

“All of these exercises are out there,” Athar adds. “You might have to modify the type of exercise you do based on what your limitations are, but I would not just stop exercising because you have certain concerns. Of course, if there is something that worries you, you should definitely speak to your primary care doctor about it and see if you need further evaluation for that condition.”

Athar says she frequently and often readily sees the difference between patients who exercise and those who don’t. “I’ll have, say, a 90-year-old walk into my office and they will look like they’re in their 80s,” she says. “As they get older, they’re physically more fit, and they tend to have fewer medical issues as a result. I see that all the time in my practice.”

If you’re still not convinced that exercise at any age is worthwhile, consider the quality of life you want to have now and in the future. Regular physical activity brings sustained, long-term changes that significantly affect health and vitality on many levels and helps enable full participation in life. “Exercise has a great effect on overall well-being, mood [and] cognitive function,” Cook says, and helps prevent the serious potential health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle, such as Type II diabetes, obesity, heart disease and disability. “All of those conditions,” Cook notes, “can really affect quality of life overall.” 

Stay in the game

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Illustration by Nadia Divakova

Some people assume that as they enter middle age and beyond, they need to hang up their sneakers, cleats and dance shoes. Health experts say otherwise. While we might need to modify the types of activity we do, staying active is a smart choice that can help reduce pain and preserve independence while it lowers the risk of many health problems such as obesity, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. Plus, exercise benefits mental health as it alleviates stress and stimulates the release of feel-good hormones.

For guidance, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that older adults engage in exercise that addresses aerobic or cardiovascular health as well as strength, flexibility and balance, but how you achieve that is up to you, says Summer Cook, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise science in the department of kinesiology at UNH in Durham. You might choose to devote time specifically to aerobic exercise, strength training or another of ACSM’s recommended exercise components, or perform exercises that incorporate multiple aspects of fitness at the same time — performing yoga postures, for example, that require strength but also balance and flexibility.

And don’t be afraid to switch it up. If slogging away on an elliptical machine for a cardio workout gets old, try cycling to work your heart. If indoor workouts aren’t your thing, take advantage of your status as a Granite Stater and hit the slopes in winter, swim in the ocean or a lake in the summer, or enjoy a brisk walk or hike in the woods — or right in your own neighborhood — at any time of year.

Staying active even in the worst of times

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Illustration by Nadia Divakova

The novel coronavirus that has dominated our lives for a year has wreaked havoc with our routines, emotions, physical health and, in some cases, financial well-being. Working out might seem like a trivial concern during such times, but it’s not, and in fact boosts the immune system and mood, and benefits sleep. How to stay active when you’re sheltering at home? Consider online exercise classes. Many local fitness centers have developed online offerings during the pandemic, and YouTube presents an infinite array of choices, many of them free. (Just be sure to check the qualifications of the person leading the exercise before you begin.)

For more information and ideas on how to stay active, visit the website of the National Institute on Aging:

Categories: Health & Wellness