Exercise and aging

Get Moving

The number of people over the age of 65 is growing quickly and expected to triple by the year 2050. With the shortage of healthcare workers, the challenge our seniors face is to remain independent for as long as possible. And the key to independence in the golden years is remaining physically fit and active.

As time marches on, the changes to your body happen slowly.

Starting in your 30s, small but significant transformations begin to change the way your heart and lungs work. By middle age, blood vessels and arteries begin to stiffen. This makes your heart work harder to pump blood which can lead to high blood pressure and other heart problems. Your lungs begin to lose strength, elasticity and become vulnerable to disease.

Additionally your bones become more dense and brittle as you age. This increases your risk of fracture. Your level of flexibility and your muscle tone change as the tendons and ligaments, the tough connective tissues that connect bones, get less lubrication and are not able to stretch as much. Your joints may begin to feel stiff as the fluid and cartilage surrounding them diminishes. This could lead to arthritis. You might even begin to feel like you’re shorter. In fact, people do shrink 1-2 inches as they age because the disks in your spine shrink.

Around your 40s, you may notice that you’ve started to put on a few pounds. Most people will gain 3 to 4 pounds a year. But since muscle mass tends to decline around middle age, any weight gained is all fat. The fat contributes to your cholesterol levels and LDL (bad cholesterol) begins to rise. In fact, if you don’t do something to protect and build up lean muscle mass, you’ll find that your metabolism slows down and it’s even easier to gain weight.

Your reflexes and coordination also decline as you age. Nerve fibers change over time and slow the speed of conduction. And the parts of the brain that manage motor control lose cells over time. This leads to a slower response time and hampers your coordination. Staying physically active can slow down and even reverse the effects of aging on your reflexes and coordination.

Stamina and strength naturally decrease over the years. While exercise may not be the fountain of youth, it can certainly help deter some of the more harmful effects of aging and help you retain some of your youthful vigor.

Some of the benefits of exercise include:

Disease prevention – Regular physical activity can help prevent heart disease and diabetes. Exercise also improves your immunity.
Improving mental health – Exercise produces endorphins which work to relieve stress and help you feel happy. This also helps you sleep better.
Decreased risk of falls – You can also improve your strength and flexibility with exercise, and that can help you improve balance and coordination. When you have strength, balance and coordination, you’ll be able to steady yourself and help prevent a fall.
Improved cognition – Exercise helps fine tune motor skills which benefit cognitive function. Studies also suggest a lower risk of dementia when people are physically active no matter when you begin.
Social engagement – Get out there with friends or join a group exercise class. It’s a great way to start and maintain social ties. Plus you’ll be more motivated to continue by exercising with friends.

It’s not too late to start

Maybe you weren’t as active as you could have been in your early years, and now you’re concerned about starting up an exercise plan. Maybe you’re worried about your ability or that you’ll fall down. By starting slowly with movements you can easily manage, you’ll be able to build up your strength and stamina.

Always begin by asking your doctor first. It’s best to get recommendations from your primary care provider before embarking on a new exercise routine. And always begin with gentle stretching to warm up your muscles and joints.

Among the best types of exercise for seniors:

Walking. No special equipment required, just start by taking a stroll through your neighborhood. Expand the distance you walk as you feel more confident and your stamina allows.
Water aerobics. Working out in water reduces stress and strain on the body’s joints. If you are able, try to swim a couple of laps to get your heartbeat up.
Yoga. Moving through yoga poses helps you with strength, balance and breathing. There are yoga classes for every fitness level.
Tai Chi. Inspired by martial arts, these slow and gentle movements help you find your balance and increase flexibility while focusing on breathing.

Any type of light exercise done on a regular basis will help you gain strength, balance and stamina. As you continue to work out, you’ll also find improvements in your overall health. You may not be able to completely reverse the effects of aging with exercise, but you’ll certainly feel younger with the energy boost you’ll get every time you make the effort to get moving. And this will help you keep living independently into your golden years.