According to the American College of Sports Medicine, by the year 2030 more than 70 million Americans will be 65 years of age or older, and those 85 years of age and older will be the fastest-growing age group.
Unfortunately, as more and more Americans live longer, less and less participate in the one activity that can help keep them healthy, active and productive—regular exercise.
By the time most of us reach the age of 50 or 60 we tend to accept the negative effects of aging as a fact of life that we have little or no control over.
While regular physical activity is important for people of all ages, it has been shown that the benefits of regular exercise are the most important to the people who tend to exercise the least—people over 50, and even more so, people over 60.
In fact, it's estimated that more than 90% of retirees in the United States get virtually no meaningful exercise, and that more than 50% are totally sedentary.
It is true that we can not stop the calendar from marching ahead at what seems to be a faster and faster pace, however, recent studies have shown that we can alter the rate at which our bodies progress through our life cycle.
We now have a better understanding of why some people tend to age much faster than others. There is a large body of scientific evidence that suggests that we can slow down and even reverse the symptoms of aging. In fact many of us can be in better health in our 70's than we were in our 50's.
Recent studies indicate that between the ages of 30 and 70 many of the symptoms and conditions that were traditionally associated with normal aging are in fact the result of sedentary lifestyles.
Evaluating one's strength, endurance, mobility and cardiovascular-pulmonary performance before and after a one month period of complete bed rest can be equated to 30 years of aging.
The good news is that regular exercise incorporated into our lifestyle can improve our heart and respiratory function, lower our blood pressure, increase our strength, improve bone density, improve flexibility, quicken our reaction time, reduce body fat, increase muscle mass, and reduce our susceptibility to depression & disease.
Studies have shown that regular exercise by middle aged and elderly people can set back the clock 20-40 years when compared to those who do little or no exercise. Test results show that no matter when a person starts to exercise, significant improvement can be achieved.
One of the groups tested had an average age of 90. Older people can achieve the same percentage gains in performance as the young, according to Dr. H.A. DeVries, past director of the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California and a respected pioneer in the field.
In one study of more than 200 men & women aged 56 to 87, "dramatic changes" were observed after just 6 weeks of exercising 3 to 5 times a week. Study participants became as fit and energetic as people 20 to 30 years younger.
Dr. Everett L. Smith, director of the Bio-gerontology Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin has shown that among once sedentary women in their 50's who participated in an aerobic dance program for 6 years, fitness improved by 23% and they experienced none of the functional declines typically seen with increasing age! This group appears to have stopped the clock at an age when functional declines are usually apparent.
Dr. Smith also compared bone loss among women in their 80's. With those women that did seated exercises for 30 minutes, 3 times a week for 3 years, bone mineral actually increased by 2.29%, whereas in a similar group of inactive women, bone loss averaged 3.28%.
Various studies have shown that when our bones are taxed from exercise they grow stronger and denser and more resistant to fracture. Dr. Harris from the Center for the Study of Aging at Albany Medical College, found that when nerve cells are deprived of stimuli they atrophy, suggesting that stimulation of the central nervous system by physical activity may retard the loss of nerve cells in the brain and elsewhere.
Aerobic exercise has been shown to enhance blood flow to various parts of the brain as well as to increase the speed with which nerve messages travel through the brain.
In a study, at Purdue, among previously sedentary middle aged men who took part in a 4 month exercise & fitness program, a significant improvement was noted in the mental processes controlled by the part of the brain (left hemisphere) responsible for logical reasoning and math.
The men who exercised 3 times per week, were compared on 10 tests of mental ability to a similar group of men who remained sedentary. Another study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Older adults who exercised at least three times a week were 38 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease, which causes a slow, irreversible decline in brain function. "
The decline the brain experiences late in life is not inevitable. It can be affected by things like habitual exercise," said lead study author Dr. Eric Larson of the Group Health Cooperative in Seattle. The theory is that exercise not only increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain - it may also reduce the telltale "plaque" in the brain associated with Alzheimer's disease.
Aerobic exercise helps control Type II (Late Onset) diabetes because it aids in the metabolism of sucrose. Aerobic exercise strengthens your heart, helps prevent the build up of cholesterol, improves the functioning of the liver, pancreas & most vital organs.
A recent study at the University of California that evaluated data from more than 5,000 women over the age of 65, concluded that there is scientific evidence that exercise is good for your memory. Aerobic exercise brings additional oxygen and glucose to the brain, both of which are crucial to brain function.
The body responds by forming new capillaries to bring the additional blood to nerve cells and by boosting brain chemicals that protect neurons and strengthen new neuronal connections. Exercise also promotes attention & alertness, both of which are needed to get information into your memory.
Human Growth Hormone and the lack of it is believed to contribute to the aging process. In our 50's most people stop producing HGH and the aging process accelerates as the rate of cellular reproduction, growth and repair slows.
The good news is that exercise also aids in the production of Human Growth Hormone which in turn helps us to maintain and develop our muscles, strength and stamina. Exercise is clearly the best weapon we have to combat disease, to slow down and or reverse the effects of aging.
It is no wonder that the experts in the field believe that exercise is the closest thing we have to a Fountain of Youth. Research has proven how regular exercise relates to the aging process and how it can improve your quality of life.
There are several benefits of exercise, including:
*Increased stamina and energy
*Strong bones (and lower risk of osteoporosis)
*Improved muscle tone and strength
*Increased heart and lung efficiency
*Flexible joints, tendons and ligaments, which improve agility
*Improved digestive system
*Better balance (thus helping to prevent injuries, such as falls)
*Lower blood pressure
*Less tension and stress
*Improved memory and alertness
In addition, regular exercise may prevent the onset of certain diseases and inhibit the effects of many chronic diseases of aging, including high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, and osteoporosis. Given these compelling reasons to exercise regularly, why don't more people over 50 do it?
The excuses range from feeling too old, to having a specific medical condition, to not having enough time, to feeling out of place. But the truth is that almost anyone of any age can participate in some type of physical activity, even including people with certain medical conditions.
Fortunately, beneficial results can be attained from as little as 30 minutes of exercise three to four times per week or 15-20 minutes of light physical activity (like housecleaning, gardening, slow walking) each day. Also encouraging for the 50+ crowd is that many gyms, health clubs, swim clubs, walking clubs, YMCA's and senior centers are offering more exercise programs geared toward their age group.
Get a Checkup First
"Before starting any exercise program, anyone regardless of age should have a thorough physical and get the go-ahead from his physician," says Dr. Jacques Carter, MD, MPH, of Boston's Beth Israel/Deaconess Medical Center.
Carter also notes that if you have a specific medical condition or conditions, your physician will want to make recommendations about what exercise program will be most suitable for you, set any necessary limitations on that program, and monitor your progress.
Do a Variety of Activities
Once you get the medical go-ahead, trainers and exercise physiologists suggest that you follow a three-pronged exercise program, including the following:
Probably the most important part of a regular exercise program, aerobic exercise is anything that causes an increase in the overall activity of your cardiovascular system (heart and lungs) for a sustained period. Over time, aerobic activity conditions your body in general, and your heart and lungs in particular, to be able to perform a greater amount of work with less effort.
Although even minimal increases in aerobic activity can be beneficial, your goal should be at least 20 (and preferably 30 or more) minutes of sustained aerobic activity three to five times per week.
Factor in the following two elements: First, find an aerobic activity you enjoy, because if you don't like it, you won't stick with it. Second, try and find an aerobic activity that is low impact (that is, it won't take a toll on your joints), such as brisk walking, biking, swimming, and low-impact aerobics classes.
In addition to toning your body and making all movement less strenuous and energy consuming, muscle strengthening and conditioning will help support your joints, thus preventing arthritic problems and reducing the chance of injuries caused by falls.
Muscle strengthening can be accomplished by using either weight machines or free weights. You don't need to use much weight to see results, because studies show that excellent health benefits can be achieved (even for people in their 70s and 80s) through regular regimens of even very light weight-lifting (3-10 pounds).
Muscle strengthening also has one "hidden" beneficial effect: While aerobic exercise burns calories while you exercise, weight training causes the body to burn calories 24 hours a day, even when you're at rest, because the body expends more energy to maintain muscle mass than to maintain fat mass—as much as 40 calories more per day per pound of muscle.
And, while 40 calories per day may not seem like much, it does make a difference. Suppose you do serious weight lifting and add five pounds of muscle to your body. At that point, your body would automatically burn up to an additional 200 calories per day. Over a year, this is the equivalent of 72,800 calories, which equals a weight loss of 20 pounds per year!
Flexibility (Stretching) Exercises
Stretching exercises serve a number of purposes, including maintaining full motion in your joints, keeping muscles from shortening and tightening, preventing or lessening the effects of arthritis, and preventing injuries by increasing agility and mobility.
A physical trainer or exercise physiologist can help you design a good 10- to 15-minute stretching/flexibility regimen that you can do every day, as well as before and after your aerobic and/or strengthening exercises.