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It's Never Too Late to be Fit

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 day.    

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.

Strength Training

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 pain.

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

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.

Aerobics

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.

Other aerobic 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 exercise regimen.

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 and independence.

 

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