What happens as we age?
Most of us notice a decline in our body’s ability to move and be active by the age of 30. But, some studies suggest that “participating in regular physical activity can delay the normal aging process by 10 to 20 years.” 1
Let’s take a look at some of those changes and what types of exercise may help 2:
Cardiovascular and Respiratory Function: Your body’s ability to take in oxygen and transfer it to blood and muscles is known as aerobic capacity; loss of it may tax the heart and lungs, making it harder for you to breathe. Aging and/or disease play a big role, but cardiovascular exercise helps maintain aerobic capacity.
Muscle Weakness and Loss of Muscle Mass: As our muscles weaken, there are losses in aerobic capacity, bone density, insulin sensitivity, and metabolic rate; it will contribute to increases in body fat, blood pressure, and incidences of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. To counterattack the normal loss of muscle mass, older adults will find endurance and resistance training beneficial.
Joint Mobility: The ligaments, tendons, muscles, fascia and skin around the joint get stiff and/or shorten as we age, and joint movement can decline 20-50% between 30 and 70. Flexibility can be maintained by safely moving the joints through their full range of motion — but once ROM is lost, it is difficult to regain.
Loss of Bone Mass: Loss of bone mass is a normal part of aging. Fractures are more likely, particularly in the spine, hip and wrist. Studies suggest that exercise helps if it is long-term and involves stressing the skeleton (walking, jogging, stair climbing or squats). For the upper body, resistance training is important.
Neurological Function: A lessening of cognitive skills, memory loss, detriments in vision and hearing, loss of motor speed, and balance and gait impairments — all occur as we age. It is harder to do two things at once, and if we move fast, we may make more errors. Physical activity has many beneficial effects on memory and cognition, especially if one is challenged to do a variety of tasks at once. There is also evidence that exercise can improve blood supply to the brain, thus stimulating neuronal growth.
More Information from a CBC Program
In April of 2011, the CBC radio program, Quirks and Quarks, did a segment titled “Exercise and the Aging Brain.” They said that research reveals that “the best way to forestall or even reverse age-related mental decline is with a regular program of exercise.” They added that “people who exercise regularly can resist this decline.” 3
Here’s what some of the guests on the program had to say:
Dr. Art Kramer, a neuroscientist and director of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, conducted studies that show that even sedentary older adults who begin “regular aerobic exercise programs can improve cognitive function by 15-20%.”
Dr. Brian Christie, another neuroscientist, teaches at both UBC and UVic. He suggests that “the brain is a very demanding organ, requiring vast amounts of nutrients and oxygen.” If we reduce fitness as we age, we “may deprive the brain of the resources it needs to perform well....Exercise [may] actually stimulate growth in the brain.”
Dr. Laura Baker, a neuropsychologist with the Veterans Administration and the University of Washington in Seattle, says there is evidence that “exercise produces growth factors in the brain that preserve and protect neurons.” This may even stimulate stem cells to produce new brain cells — possibly “restoring brain tissue that may have atrophied.”
Dr. Jon Ratey, a psychiatrist at Harvard University, says that this stimulation that Dr. Baker refers to is most likely “because stem cells in the brain are stimulated to produce new neurons....Most studies indicate that forty minutes to an hour of moderately intense aerobic exercise...three or four times a week, will help you reap the cognitive rewards.”
More research about aging and exercise
From various studies 4:
A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reviewed the histories of 24,281 Canadians. It revealed that “The average yearly healthcare costs for the physically inactive were $1214 higher than healthcare costs of the physically active.”
More than 1500 older adults were involved in a six-year study; the average age was 71 years and 18% of them lived alone. The participants were asked every two years about whether they felt isolated or lacked companionship. People who said they were lonely were more likely to report difficulty in: 1) accomplishing daily living tasks; 2) using their upper body, and 3) climbing stairs. Thirty-eight percent of them reported a decline in mobility, and loneliness was associated with an increased risk of death.
The Longevity Genes Project followed the lives of over 500 Eastern European Jews over the age of 95 along with 700 of their descendants. Responding to many questions, these centenarians exhibited a positive attitude toward life, had an ability to express their emotions, did not display neurotic personalities, and exhibited a high level of conscientiousness. One of the researchers said, “[They] considered laughter as an important part of life and had a large social network. They expressed emotions openly rather than bottling them up.”
A study used data from a survey titled Americans’ Changing Lives, as well as mortality statistics for 1986-2005. It revealed that people who had high levels of social engagement were at a lower risk of death compared to those with less social interaction, even after controlling for other predictors of mortality. Finding ways to interact with others is important: from attending fitness class, to playing bridge, to taking a walk with your grandchild.
Professor Steven N. Blair of the Department of Exercise Science and Epidemiology at the Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina, has been involved in research to determine how much regular physical activity improves our health….at any age. His results were published in an edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Professor Blair begins: “There is now overwhelming evidence that regular physical activity has important and wide-ranging health benefits. These range from reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers to enhanced function and preservation of function with age.” As well, he adds that “there is strong emerging evidence that activity delays cognitive decline and is good for brain health as well as having extensive benefits for the rest of the body.” Blair’ discovered that those who exercised lived longer and felt better than those who didn’t. He asserts “that the typical physician is 10-50 times more likely to measure cholesterol, blood pressure, and BMI than to measure fitness.” He recommends that an exercise test be a part of any physical exam.
- Exercise and Arthritis
- Reasons why some older Adults Don't stay in Exercise: And reasons why they should
- Genetics and our Health
- Exercise and Our Brain
- Exercise and Lifestyle and Older Adults: Recent Research
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.
From the text Aging, Physical Activity and Health. ↩︎
From the text, Physical Activity Instruction of Older Adults, edited by G. Jessie Jones and Debra J. Rose. ↩︎
CBC website which advertises Quirks and Quarks: http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/ ↩︎
- Archives of Internal Medicine, online (June 2012); "Does Physical Activity Reduce Seniors’ Need for Healthcare?” Authors John C. Woolcott, Maureen C. Ashe, William C. Miller, and Carlo A. Marra (all from UBC), along with Peilin Shi (from the Aging Brain Center at the Institute for Aging Research in Boston, Massachusetts); "Aging", online (May 21, 2012); Journal of Aging and Health, 24(4):547-568 (June 2012); Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 44(2):163, March-April 2007.