Written by Tiffany Esmat, Ph.D.
Do you know what centenarians and long-lived individuals tend to have in common? Would you guess that their longevity has often been attributed to a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a social network and positive mental outlook?
As we age, both structural and functional declines occur in most physiological systems, even in individuals without chronic diseases. This decline presents itself through decreased maximal aerobic capacity and muscle performance. In addition, body composition (the percentage of muscle mass to fat mass) also starts to change. Aging is often associated with decreased muscle mass and increased fat mass, placing older adults at a greater risk for both metabolic and cardiovascular disease. These changes often contribute to reduced functional capacity and further affect activities of daily living and overall quality of life.
However, while exercise may not completely stop the biological aging process, it can provide many positive benefits. Benefits include increasing life expectancy and decreasing the progression and development of some chronic diseases while decreasing the risk of disability. Living an inactive or sedentary lifestyle can have many negative side effects including increased fatigue, sleep disturbances, difficulty with everyday tasks and decreased self-esteem. Often the negative effects associated with living a sedentary lifestyle are confused with getting older. Remember that lifestyle factors or things we have control over can make a difference in how we age. If we choose to participate in physical activity and regular exercise, we can choose to positively impact how we age. By leading an active lifestyle, we are working to preserve our independence by increasing our functional ability.
It is never too late to become physically active. Participating in a regular exercise program brings benefits that can affect our everyday activities. These include improved cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, flexibility and balance. These are important factors in functional ability. In addition, participation in regular exercise can also positively affect pain control, self-confidence and sleep patterns. These multiple benefits can make the difference between living at home independently or not.
The general recommendation for all adults is to accumulate 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. Additional benefits can be achieved through more activity. Adults that cannot participate in the minimum recommendation of 150 minutes per week should be as physically active as possible. The aerobic activity should be a rhythmic activity that uses large muscle groups such as walking, cycling, swimming or low-impact aerobics. What is the best type of activity? It depends on the individual. The ideal activity is one that is accessible, does not impose orthopedic stress and, most important, is one that is enjoyable to enhance overall compliance with the exercise program.
Muscular strength and endurance is often considered the most important component of health-related fitness for older adults as it counters the loss of muscle mass and the corresponding physical weakness that occurs with aging. In addition, it can help with balance issues, thereby reducing the risk of falls and fractures. Muscular strength and endurance also plays a great role in completing everyday tasks such as climbing stairs, unloading groceries and getting up from a seated or reclined position. The general recommendation for muscular strength and endurance includes training each of the six major muscle groups (legs, abdominals, back, chest, shoulders and arms) twice a week at a moderate intensity. A combination of eight to ten exercises should be performed with one to three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.
Flexibility training (stretching) can help increase range of motion needed for everyday activities. Flexibility exercises should be performed at least two times per week with each stretch held for 10 to 30 seconds to the point of tension but not pain. Each stretch should be completed two to four times. Balance training refers to a combination of activities created to increase lower body strength and while decreasing the risk of falling. Balance training is recommended for any adult at risk of falling.
For those who are not currently active, a great place to start is by limiting your sedentary leisure time. Try to incorporate ways to be more physically active in your everyday life such as taking the stairs or parking the car farther away from your destination. Find ways to socialize while participating in physical activity. Remember that some activity is better than none, and even small amounts bring health benefits. Whether you are currently physical active or have not been active in many years, the importance of a well-rounded exercise program cannot be stressed enough. The benefits are for everyone, regardless of age. Remember: it is never too late to start an exercise program to experience the many wonderful anti-aging benefits.
Editor’s note: See the Federal Physical Activity Guidelines for Older Adults for more information.
View the full fall 2010 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page online.