Overcoming Obstacles to Exercise in an Aging Population

05.17.15
Health & Wellness

Not too long ago this column focused on the anti-aging effects of exercise. In the concluding paragraph I made the statement “Inactivity as we age is a vicious cycle that must be consciously avoided.” I have since realized that statement was an incomplete thought. How do we consciously avoid it? This week we will try to address some of the obstacles older individuals face to regular exercise.

Recent advances in the medical community have made great strides in adding years to our lives. I won’t be so bold as to say that physical activity is THE most important component in adding “life to our years”, but it’s pretty close! Way back in college my peers and I learned that in the absence of strength training, we lose an average of 1% of our muscle mass every year past the age of 40. It’s no wonder then that we see feebleness in our aging parents, grandparents, extended family, and acquaintances. Let’s discuss some of the myths associated with their inactivity.

“It’s too late, I’m too old to start an exercise program”. It is never too late to begin a program of physical activity. A 14-week research project implemented in a senior living facility in Florida by Wayne Westcott, Ph.D. and colleagues had an average participant age of 88. With only six exercises performed twice a week for the 14 week period, the program showed an 81% increase in lower body strength and a 39% increase in upper body strength in participants. These individuals gained muscle mass and shed body fat as well.

“Older people shouldn’t exercise. They should save their strength and rest.” While it’s true that our recovery time does increase as we age, being sedentary doesn’t “save” anything. On the contrary, the maintenance of muscle mass in humans is absolutely a “use it or lose it” proposition. If muscle tissue is not active and utilized, the body will deem it unnecessary. Tissue requires calories for maintenance, so if a tissue is deemed unnecessary, the body will convert that tissue to energy to avoid the “payment” of its upkeep.

“Exercise puts me at risk of falling.” Study after study shows that exercise in older populations increases strength and stamina, prevents the loss of bone mass, and improves balance – all factors in REDUCING fall risk. Or, in the unfortunate event that a fall does occur, greatly reducing your chance of injury and increasing your chance of recovery.

“I’m disabled. I can’t exercise sitting down.” It is true that chair bound people face specific challenges, but these can typically be overcome by simple determination on the part of the exercise participant and creativity on the part of an exercise professional. Strength can still be gained, flexibility still increased, and cardiovascular condition still improved.

“There’s no point to exercising, I’m going to get old anyway.” In response to this last stumbling block we need simply to reflect back to the earlier column on the anti-aging effects of exercise and to the opening paragraph of this one. Yes, chronological aging is inevitable, but if you want to add life to your years, exercise is one of the best bets you can make!

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