You can’t stop the aging clock, but there’s ever-increasing scientific evidence that regular exercise can help you slow it down. A lot of problems we used to consider an inevitable part of aging—loss of strength, bone thinning, bad balance, even memory loss—may actually be related, at least in part, to disuse of the body. For example:
• A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society found that inactivity doubles the risk of mobility limitations as people age.
• Cellular changes associated with aging appear notably slower in the cells of active people than in those of sedentary people, according to research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The study looked at 2,400 twins with similar genetic factors.
• Research that appeared in 2011 in The Proceedings of the National of Academy of Sciences found that aerobic exercise by older adults increased the size of the hippocampus, a portion of the brain associated with memory and learning that shrinks as people age.
Even if you’re new to the concept, it’s never too late to start exercising. Swedish researchers who monitored more than 2,200 men from the age of 50 found that those who increased activity levels from ages 50 to 60 ended up living as long as those who were already exercising regularly by middle age.
4 Types of Exercise
An inactive lifestyle can cause older adults to lose ground in areas that are important for staying healthy and independent: strength, balance, flexibility, and endurance. To get the maximum benefits from exercise, the National Institute on Aging recommends focusing on activities that target each area:
Strength. Muscle keeps us strong. It also supports bones, contributes to balance, and helps keep blood sugar and weight in check by increasing metabolism. We begin losing muscle mass around age 30 and the rate of loss accelerates after age 50. Fortunately, it also is possible to build it at any age. Weight-bearing exercises help build muscle.
Balance. Exercise that builds leg muscles helps to prevent falls.
Flexibility. Stretching exercises can give you more freedom of movement, which will allow you to be more active during your senior years.
Endurance. “Aerobic” activity that increases your heart rate and breathing for an extended period of time builds endurance. It brings additional oxygen, glucose and other nutrients to the brain that are crucial to brain cells. Focus on “low impact” activities like walking, swimming, or bicycling that do not place extra stress on the joints.
Committing to an exercise program is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself, but do it wisely. Here are some recommendations to make it a successful, safe experience:
• Get medical clearance from your doctor first.
• Start slow and set realistic expectations. Even if you are resuming exercise after an extended break, don’t go all out. Aim for consistency rather than time at the beginning. Overdoing it and unrealistic goals are leading reasons that people tend to give up.
• Seek support from family and friends. In fact, find a partner to join you. There are times you will feel unmotivated or possibly discouraged and outside encouragement can help you maintain your resolve.