Exercise is a fundamental component of a healthy lifestyle at any age. But as good as exercise is for children, teens and young adults, it grows more and more important with each passing year.
“Multiple studies have demonstrated the benefits of regular exercise for health in older adults,” says Nathan Wei, MD, clinical director of the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Md. “Beneficial effects occur in the brain, heart, and muscles. Sarcopenia [muscle loss] is retarded. Plus, exercise increases endorphin production, leading to less perception of pain.”
Expert Advice on Exercise: Make it a Habit
The key to reaping the benefits of exercise as you age is to develop a regular, consistent exercise habit. “Consistency trumps intensity when it comes to exercise,” says Joseph Barry, MD, an internist and geriatrician at SignatureMD in Camillus, NY. “If you push too hard, the likelihood of injury increases. If you aren’t consistent with your exercise, like a daily walk, you won’t develop the habit and you won’t keep at it.”
Wei also recommends exercise consistency, as well as variety. “Exercise regularly – I mean every day – and incorporate cardio, resistance, and stretching or yoga,” he advises.
What the Science Says About Exercise and Aging
Here are the top 5 reasons to keep exercising as you age, and the research behind them:
You’re less likely to injure yourself by falling.
Falls are the leading cause of injury among older adults, according to the National Council on Aging. Maintaining a steady exercise routine as you age could decrease your risk of falling and hurting yourself. Yale researchers found that regular physical activity, including moderate walking and exercises to increase flexibility, strength and balance, resulted in fewer injuries from falling in older men.
Your brain will look younger.
Americans spend millions of dollars each year to maintain the youthful appearance of their faces, bodies and skin. But most never worry for a second about how old their brain looks.
It might be time to start. Normally, as you age, the volume of the gray matter in your brain decreases. With MRI imaging, scientists can assess the age of your brain based on the volume of its gray matter. The lower the volume, the older the brain looks.
A recent study shows that climbing stairs has an impact on the volume of your brain, and consequently how young or old it looks. Researchers from Concordia University’s Montreal-based PERFORM Centre found that the more flights of stairs a person climbs, the more youthful his or her brain appears in MRI images. For every flight of stairs climbed in a day, the age of the brain decreases by 0.58 years.
You’ll cut your risk of Alzheimer’s in half.
The decrease in brain volume that usually occurs with age increases your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. A study from UCLA Medical Center and the University of Pittsburgh indicates that you can drastically lower your risk of Alzheimer’s through aerobic exercise.
Study participants, with an average age of 78, performed a variety of aerobic activities, such as dancing, gardening, walking, and riding an exercise bike. The researchers discovered that increased physical activity was associated with larger volumes in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes of the brain. Those who experienced these higher brain volumes due to exercise were 50% less likely to suffer from dementia due to Alzheimer’s.
You’ll lower your chances of developing other age-related conditions too.
One of the reasons people develop various health issues as they age is a process called cellular senescence, in which cells lose the ability to replicate. When senescent cells build up, they contribute to age-related diseases and conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and osteoporosis.
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic recently looked at the impact of diet and exercise on the process of aging in mice. They found that the mice that exercised gained less weight, had less body fat, and were protected against the accumulation of senescent cells. This slower rate of cell senescence led to a decrease in the development of age-related conditions in the more physically active mice.
Exercise eases pain and improves mobility in arthritis sufferers.
Approximately half of adults 65 years and older suffer from arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arthritis causes achiness, pain, stiffness, and swollen joints. Many sufferers avoid exercise, thinking it will exacerbate their symptoms.
Not so, says Linda Russell, MD, a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York. “People believe that if you have arthritis you shouldn’t exercise, but appropriate exercises actually help decrease pain,” she said in a news release from HSS.
HSS offers a low-impact exercise program in senior centers throughout New York City. In a survey of 204 program participants, many reported that they experienced less pain and were able to perform their daily activities more easily.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Arthritis-Related Statistics”
Joseph Barry, MD, board certified in Internal Medicine and Geriatrics, member of SignatureMD, Camillus, NY
Nathan Wei, MD, FACP, FACR, Clinical Director, Arthritis Treatment Center, Frederick, MD
National Council on Aging: “Fall Prevention Facts”
News release, Concordia University
News release, Hospital for Special Surgery
News release, Mayo Clinic
News release, University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
News release, Yale University