While there’s no fountain of youth, there is mounting evidence that regular exercise is key to fighting the effects of aging and disease. Exercise regularly and you could ward off diabetes, heart disease and a host of other diseases and even reverse others. You could also improve your flexibility and balance, which is especially critical as adults who lack balance are at greater risk of falls, which are the leading cause of fatal injury and the most common cause of nonfatal trauma-related hospital admission among older adults, according to the National Council of Aging.
The difference between those who exercise and those who don’t is stark: One recent study from the University of Birmingham and King’s College London compared the muscles and immune systems of a group of older adults who had exercised their entire lives with a group of similarly aged adults and younger adults who had not exercised regularly. People who worked out consistently defied the aging process by enjoying the immunity and muscle mass of a much younger person. The study indicates it’s a lack of exercise rather than age that causes someone to lose immune protection.
Here’s what happens to our bodies as we age:
- Hearts pumping less blood: As we enter our 30s, for example, a Harvard Medical School Study explains the average man’s maximum attainable heart rate declines by about one beat per minute, per year, and his heart’s peak capacity to pump blood drifts down by 5%–10% per decade. This explains why a healthy 25-year-old heart can pump 2½ quarts of blood a minute, but a 65-year-old heart can’t get above 1½ quarts, even if it’s disease-free. This explains why this diminished aerobic capacity can lead to fatigue and breathlessness with modest daily activities.
- Blood Pressure Rises: During middle age, an individual’s blood vessels begin to stiffen and blood pressure often rises.
- Weight Gain: Many Americans gain 3–4 pounds a year, and as people lose muscle, that weight gain is all fat, leading to a rise in bad LDL cholesterol and a fall in good HDL cholesterol. The Harvard study states that this explains why sugar levels jump about 6 points per decade, explaining the spike in Type 2 Diabetes.
- Muscles Loss and Bone Loss: As hormones levels drop later in life, we lose bone calcium as we age, increasing the risk of fractures. It’s also common for coordination, memory lapses and balance to change.
If you’re now wondering how do I get myself or a senior friend or relative off the couch and working out, it’s important to start slowly and consult a doctor if you’ve had injury issues in the past or currently suffer from a condition that might impair your ability to exercise. We’ve selected a few senior-friendly low-impact cardio exercises, as well as exercises like yoga and tai chi that help improve one’s balance. Whatever your fitness ability is, the key thing to get moving!
- Swimming: whether you’re doing laps or taking water aerobics, swimming is an excellent cardiovascular fitness that also strengthens your muscles. Many pools conduct senior classes such as water aerobics that will challenge anyone.
- Yoga: This low-impact exercise is weight-bearing and will help you strengthen your muscles and bones. Exercise programs like SilverSneakers offers yoga that seniors can do from a chair.
- Tai Chi, like yoga is a gentle exercise that helps seniors improve balance (see falls). Tai Chi also teaches individuals to breathe deeply while making slow, graceful movements. Meditation and breathing is important as anxiety afflicts many seniors.
- Non-Contact Boxing: More than 10 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson’s Disease, the incidence of which increases with age. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, published medical research has shown that forced, intense exercise can reduce, reverse and delay Parkinson’s symptoms, according to the nonprofit Rock Steady Boxing, which runs classes all over the U.S. The benefits of Non-Contact Boxing are good for anyone!
- Dancing: Whether you’re doing a modified Zumba Gold Class for seniors or a ballroom dancer, dancing can help boost one’s energy and mood, give you cardio workout and improve memory from trying to learn new routines, as well as balance.