Healthy Aging and Exercise
I sometimes hear friends and family members talking about how they are going to change their living situations and activities as they slow down with age. There are certainly circumstances which make it necessary to make these types of changes, but it is not a foregone conclusion. With a little luck and an understanding of what keeps us young, we can put off having to slow down for a very long time, if not indefinitely.
A 2014 study tested three groups, one of older healthy individuals who had exercised most of their lives, the second consisted of healthy non-exercisers of similar age, and the third was a group of healthy young adults. The older exercises had preserved their muscle and strength. The men in this group had also maintained high testosterone levels, avoiding what many consider to be male menopause.
The benefits the exercisers enjoyed did not stop there. Their immune systems had not aged either. An organ called the thymus, which makes immune cells, called T cells, tends to shrink beginning at about age 20, but the older exercisers were making as many T cells as the younger group. The exercise kept their immune systems healthy and like that of a young person.
Professor Janet Lord, Director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham, said: “Hippocrates in 400 BC said that exercise is man’s best medicine, but his message has been lost over time and we are an increasingly sedentary society.” The 2014 study provides real evidence that encouraging a life-long commitment to exercise is a solution to the problem in our society that people are living longer but are not healthier.
If we do not exercise to counteract the natural effects of aging, we lose about a pound of muscle per year after age thirty and a pound of fat takes its place. This is preventable and both aerobic and strength exercises will assist in preserving and building muscle. Regular brisk walks will help with the muscles in our lower body. If we also do some upper-body weights or resistance exercises like push-ups (on the wall or floor from knees or toes) and triceps presses, we help maintain our upper-body strength.
The stronger muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones of exercisers can alleviate many issues that we face as we age. Changes to the nervous system, coordination and memory can all be avoided or delayed by starting to exercise early and continuing through our twilight years. Although not necessarily the Fountain of Youth, staying strong gives us the opportunity to grow old gracefully and with our faculties intact.
One of the conclusions that can be taken from the study is that the older exercisers were not continuing to exercise because they were healthy, they maintained good health because they had exercised most of their lives. This means we do not have to anticipate that as we age our health will fail. Rather, by finding activity we enjoy and can continue as we grow older, we will reap the benefits later in life, staying independent and productive into old age.
I was thinking of the concept of not slowing down when I was driving home in all the snow in a car not equipped for the elements. I had to drive aggressively just to stay moving along the streets, and I could slow down for intersections as long as I got back to being aggressive as soon as I could. As we necessarily slow down due to injuries or issues, we want to get back to our active selves as soon as possible and put the slower times behind us.
If you continue to exercise to maintain your younger fitness level, you can stay independent longer. You don’t have to become an elite athlete. Whether you exercise now or did when you were younger, there is a benefit to continuing or beginning an exercise program. It doesn’t matter how slowly you start, just stick with what you like until you get stronger and then don’t give it up. Regardless of age, you won’t regret feeling better and stronger!