Home Gym – The elixir of life: How exercise slows down the ageing process
Evidence is widespread that regular exercise, including for older people, is associated with: reduced mortality, greater functional independence, benefits in cognition. Exercise means aerobic exercise and, separately, physical activity to improve strength, flexibility and balance.
Health without exercise is possible and works for many people. But health with exercise is a completely different animal. The body is designed to move, joints to bend, muscles to contract, lungs to breathe more deeply, oxygen to be pumped more vigorously around the body, and the brain functions better when the body is exercising more. So exercise per se is not just an activity to ignore. It is one of a handful of lifestyle operations that separates the good life from a tough life.
There’s a conversation repeated daily throughout many parts of the world: Get some exercise, watch your diet, bring your weight down, and let’s control your blood pressure. If 50 per cent of people responded to those recommendations, many of our hospitals would be struggling for work.
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Why exercise is so important
It sounds simple, but compared with indolence, a sedentary life, or the ‘sitting disease’, exercise is the elixir of life. You can embark on a self-administered plan, but it is probably best to have the medical check-up first, in case there are heart issues that may require your exercise plan to be modulated and other interventions introduced to arrest the medical problems.
Many major, long-term studies internationally have compared individuals following a regular exercise programme with those who adopted a sedentary life. A minimum of 20 to 25 minutes a day of moderate aerobic exercise, for people over the age of 60, is associated with a 20 to 30 per cent reduction in the risk of premature death, as well as reduced risks of heart attacks and strokes. Aerobic exercise is that which gets your heart pumping and your breathing racing, getting puffed.
The largest follow-up study run by the United States National Cancer Institute and Harvard University examined data from over 660,000 older adults testing the relationship between exercise habits and medical outcomes. Highest risk of death was among the non-exercise group. Even modest exercise reduced the risk of premature death by 20 per cent, and those completing the 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week exhibited a 30 per cent reduction in premature death.
Data from 300,000 subjects involved in this trial showed that midlife is not too late to start being active. Individuals who had been physically inactive during much of their adulthood gained substantial health benefits by increasing their physical activity later in life.
Exercise is one of the most important activities to reduce instability and reduce the risk of falls. It’s important that this includes both aerobic exercise and resistance work to increase the strength of muscles and reduce instability. Regular exercise assists in improving cognition, reducing depression, improving sleep and enhancing mood. Your brain perks up. If all these benefits could be bottled, or included in a tablet, it would be by far the most widespread drug used on the planet. It’s almost hard to be too old not to see benefit from a controlled exercise programme.
How to exercise
As with other medical treatments, the benefits of exercise are dose and duration related. That means the more exercise you do, the better it is for you, up to certain extreme limits. Consistency of an exercise programme is important. How you exercise is a very personal decision. It doesn’t have to mean going off to a gym, working with a trainer, lifting weights on a machine, chatting to other active participants, and becoming part of the gym culture.
Many people, more often women, expend considerable exercise in working at home, in gardening, housekeeping, standing and working on meal preparations, looking after kids, and generally keeping the home fires burning. Such domestic activities commonly expend substantially more exercise than the recommended 150 minutes a week.
It is also important to recognise that exercise we are considering here is aerobic, where your heart rate is boosted to a medically recommended safe level depending on your age, and where you are fit enough to be able to undertake that activity. In addition to aerobic exercise we need strength training, to boost muscle, and balance exercises to reduce falls. Can you stand on one leg with your eyes closed, for example? For individuals who already have suffered a heart attack or a stroke, these are not reasons or excuses to discontinue physical exercise, rather it is part of a necessary rehabilitation and recovery from those conditions and to decrease the risk of a repeat event.
While the maximum exercise benefits might take some years to lock in, immediate improvement in brain function, concentration, mood and effective mobility can be apparent within days or at least weeks of initiating an exercise programme.
While you are making up your mind on which exercise gym to join, or which exercise programme to follow, get outside and take a walk. The benefits of walking are not just to your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Mentally you will be stimulated rapidly. Some creators find their best efforts occur immediately after a good exercise workout.
Getting active, with walking as the exercise, delivers the following: improved mood, sleep, cognition, mobility, independence, longer healthy lives, reduced depression and anxiety, immobility, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, loss of cognition. Jury out on Alzheimer’s disease, but probably delayed.
Studies have suggested mental performance gains measurably during walking, and significantly more so after a spell of walking: minds are cleared.Use these phrases as motivation: you don’t get old until you stop walking; you don’t stop walking because you’re old. Begin with 500 metres and work up to 1 km and then to 5 km.
Muscle strength, endurance, balance and flexibility
These are the four pillars of a good exercise programme. A modest programme of exercise training, with weights, resistance exercises and joint stretching, can have a profound beneficial impact lasting for many years. Results are fast, in weeks rather than months.
This training is best considered in four separate categories: Strength: where exercises, usually with weights, and resistance training, can slow the age-related loss of muscle power, and even recover this to some extent. While self driven strength programmes at home can be of immense value, it is best to get some guidance at the outset from a trainer expert.
Endurance: in addition to getting the heart pumping, there is additional health benefit from building endurance such that a 1-km walk can be extended to a 5-km walk, increasing your capacity to participate in daily social activities.
Balance: try standing on one leg for a time. If you haven’t done it for a while, it’s not so easy to. But in many situations, such as walking up and down stairs, this particular skill is a necessary part of your stability and a defence against falls. Yoga and t’ai chi have been increasingly supported by experts as activities that really educate your body for balance.
Flexibility: joints can start to lock up and affect your capacity to move easily. Yoga, t’ai chi and stretching exercises can improve your range of motion, flexibility and strength. Get advice from a fitness instructor or google ‘flexibility exercises for seniors’. The National Institute on Aging in the United States is an arm of the National Institute of Health, the primary research entity in that country. They provide a constant flow of new information, along with a solid background of serious advice and guidance. Their exercise website (complete with videos) is entitled Go4Life. Use this as a support for your own organised strength and balance training programme.
Extracted from Ageing Well: How to Navigate Life’s Journey in Your Later Years, by Dr Doug Wilson, Calico Press. RRP $39.95
Home Gym – The elixir of life: How exercise slows down the ageing process]
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