It’s Never Too Late To Be Fit
By Wendy Priesnitz
An 85-year-old runs in the Los Angeles Marathon
and comes first in his class. A 78-year-old sailed solo to Hawaii and at 82
issues a challenge to other mature sailors to duplicate his feat. A
57-year-old woman swims almost 30 miles around Manhattan Island. A
90-year-old regularly visits Canadian schools to promote fitness and to
encourage young people to accompany him on his regular long distance walks.
Unfortunately, these active seniors hit the
news because, even in our health and fitness conscious society, they are the
exception rather than the norm. According to the Canadian Fitness and
Lifestyle Research Institute, two-thirds of all senior Canadians have
dangerously inactive lifestyles. According to the 1996-97 National
Population Health Survey, only 34 percent of men and 29 percent of women
over the age of 55 engaged in 15 minutes or more of physical activity each
The same study shows that among adults over age
74, only 29 percent of men and 19 percent of women are physically active,
sobering statistics for an age group whose sustained quality of life and
independence hinges on physical fitness. Walking, weight lifting and flexibility training
can help seniors avoid disabilities normally associated with aging and even
reverse the aging process itself, according to a University of Texas study
reported by the Center for Advancement of Health. Some decline in physical
ability is an inevitable result of normal aging, but inactivity can hasten
this decline and result in all-too-rapid rates of muscle atrophy, decreased
endurance and loss of flexibility and balance, according the study’s lead
investigator, Dr. Kyriakos Markides and his colleagues at the University of
Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
Studies have shown that strength training by
people in their 60s to 80s can improve longevity and quality of life. As we
age, our bones and joints weaken. Strength training not only helps support
the bones and joints and lessen the impact of their weakening but also improves coordination, muscle control and mobility.
Muscle can still grow and develop in people over 90. In documented research
studies, older adults have increased their strength from 10 to over 100
percent in just eight weeks. There are documented cases of individuals who
required a cane or a walker to get around, but after strength training they
no longer needed those items for mobility.
Research at the University of
Maryland has shown that strength training is effective for improving glucose
metabolism, increasing bone mineral density and speeding up gastrointestinal
transit. Studies at Tufts University have demonstrated that strength
exercise adds lean tissue, increases resting metabolism and reduces
arthritic discomfort. And researchers at the University of Florida has shown
that strength training increases low back strength and alleviates low back
Strength training means working a group (or groups) of muscles
against resistance so that the muscles become fatigued. The stimulus of the
resistance eventually causes the muscles to contract with greater force,
resulting in increased strength and perhaps increased muscle size. The
resistance can be applied in a number of ways. Machines, barbells, air
cylinders, water, rubber tubing, elastic bands and even body weight can be
used as resistance.
Walking has been recognized as important to health and
well-being as early as 400 B.C. Hippocrates wrote, “Walking is man’s best
medicine”. Walking more than four hours a week reduces hospitalizations from
heart disease. For many people, walking 30 minutes three days a week can
lower blood pressure five to ten points. Speed doesn’t necessarily count,
since people who walk three miles per hour show the same six percent rise in
good cholesterol as people who walk at five miles per hour.
Since it is
a weight-bearing exercise, walking has specific benefits for the muscular,
skeletal, endocrine and nervous systems too. Walking more than four hours
each week can reduce the risk of bone disease like osteoporosis by
maintaining bone mass. If you are diabetic, walking can help you use insulin
more efficiently. Walking regularly can help you keep your weight in control
and reduces anxiety.
The capacity of lungs to absorb oxygen normally
declines an average of one percent a year after age 40. A walking program
for people in their 70s cited in the University of Texas research study
reversed 22 years of declining lung capacity in 22 weeks.
Walking is an aerobic exercise. Aerobic means using oxygen.
To achieve aerobic conditioning, you must engage in vigorous, sustained
exercise at least three times each week. You must raise your pulse rate to a
target range and maintain it in that range for the entire time.
Calculate your Target Heart Range by subtracting your age from 220 for women
and 226 for men and multiplying your answer by 60 percent and by 80 percent.
The lower number suggests a safe rate for beginners, while the higher number
would be your goal as your fitness level improves.
activities include jogging and running, bicycling, aerobic dancing, tennis,
swimming and cross-country skiing. Most aerobic activities can also be done
indoors on exercise equipment at home or in a gym.
Of course, there are
some health conditions that mean you should avoid certain types of strenuous
activity. So consult a doctor or fitness consultant before you begin a new
No matter what type of fitness activity you choose as
you age, be sure to build 30 to 60 minutes of moderate physical activity
into your life most days of the week as a prescriptive for ongoing health