By Dr. Mercola
Exercise is a critical part of a healthy lifestyle, and it can be a part of your life no matter what your age. In fact, staying active becomes increasingly important as you get older, both for your physical and mental health.
Even frail seniors of advanced age can improve strength, agility, and even cognitive ability with exercise.
Loss of bone mass is one of the common signs of aging, because as you age your existing bone is absorbed by your body while new bone is created to replace it.
In the case of osteoporosis, the formation of new bone falls behind the rate of bone absorption, leading to weakened, thinner and more brittle bones.
A thinning hipbone is a major concern if you are elderly, because any fall increases the risk of a broken hip, which always carries a great risk of complications and usually requires prolonged specialized care for recovery. It's estimated that 25 percent of elderly people suffering a hip fracture die as a direct result.1
Weight-bearing exercise, like resistance or strength training, can go a long way to prevent brittle bone formation, and can help reverse the damage already done.
Interestingly enough, strength training also has brain-boosting side effects, which can help you avoid age-related dementia.
The above video created by the University of British Columbia Department of Physical Therapy, demonstrates resistance training for older adults and discusses the many benefits of exercise, which include:
- Improved sleep
- Reducing your risk for medical conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression, dementia, cancer, and premature death from any cause
- Preventing falls and fractures
- Improving your overall mood and outlook
Majority of Americans Don’t Get Enough Exercise
According to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),2 the majority—79 percent—of American adults aged 18 and over are not meeting federal recommendations for physical activity for either aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise. Federal recommendations include getting:
- At least 2½ hours a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or one hour and 15 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity
- Muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups, twice or more per week
Of the 450,000 respondents participating in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, an annual CDC phone survey of adults, 52 percent said they meet the aerobic activity guideline, and only 29 percent reported meeting the muscle-strengthening activity recommendation. Disturbingly, as reported in the featured article by USA Today,3 other studies suggest Americans are even more sedentary than what these statistics show:
“Scientists with the National Cancer Institute, using actual motion sensors, found that fewer than five percent of adults in the USA get at least 30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity physical activity in bouts of at least 10 minutes.”
The evidence is overwhelming when it comes to proving that staying active will benefit your health and longevity. As for what type of exercise to choose, the options are limited only by your own imagination and fitness level. Here are a few suggestions from the "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans",4 which would help you meet the minimum exercise recommendations listed above:
- Take a brisk walk for 30 minutes on five days (moderate intensity); exercise with resistance bands on two days (muscle strengthening).
- Take a brisk walk for 30 minutes on two days (moderate); go dancing for an hour one evening (moderate); mow the lawn for 30 minutes (moderate); do heavy gardening two days (muscle strengthening).
- Do 30 minutes of an aerobic dance class (vigorous); do 30 minutes of running one day (vigorous); take a brisk walk for 30 minutes on one day (moderate); do calisthenics (sit-ups, push-ups) on three days.
- Bike to and from work for 30 minutes on three days (moderate); play softball for 60 minutes on one day (moderate); use weight machines on two days.
- Play doubles tennis for 45 minutes on two days (moderate); lift weights on one day; hike vigorously for 30 minutes and go rock climbing on one day (muscle strengthening).
Progressive Resistance Training Is Particularly Beneficial for Aging Adults
As discussed in the video above, progressive resistance training is particularly beneficial for aging adults. “Progressive resistance” is when you build up strength in your muscles by gradually increasing the amount of weight you use. You can use either gym equipment or free weights. The former may be safer if you’re a novice, as free weights will require better form and control. Whichever one you choose, I recommend having a trainer take you through each exercise to make sure you have the proper form performing the exercise, to avoid injury.
While resistance training will improve muscle and bone strength, which can help prevent falls and fractures, mounting research also shows that strength training can have a profoundly beneficial impact on your brain as well. Brawn and brains are not mutually exclusive, it turns out... In one study, seniors doing progressive resistance training twice a week for one year experienced a marked improvement in their cognitive ability, scoring up to 13 percent higher in tests relating to decision making.
Strength training increases your body’s production of growth factors, which are responsible for cellular growth, proliferation, and differentiation. Some of these growth factors also promote the growth, differentiation, and survival of neurons, which helps explain why working your muscles also benefits your brain. I highly recommend watching the video above in its entirety. It demonstrates simple warm-up techniques and some basic resistance exercises for the target areas you’ll want to work, which include your:
- Core muscles
- Upper back
- Lower body
High Intensity Interval Training as an Anti-Aging Tool
Make no mistake — virtually ALL forms of exercise are beneficial, but aside from strength training, high-intensity interval-type training may also be of particular benefit for aging adults. Once you hit the age of 30, you enter what's called "somatopause," at which point your levels of HGH (human growth hormone) begin to drop off quite dramatically. This decline of HGH is part of what drives your aging process, so maintaining your HGH levels gets increasingly important with age.
Peak Fitness exercises boost your body's natural production of human growth hormone (HGH), which will help address the muscle loss and atrophy that typically occurs with aging. In fact, your production of vital human growth hormone increases by as much as 771 percent during a Peak Fitness workout. And the higher your levels of HGH, the healthier, stronger, and more “youthful” you will be. I’ve discussed and demonstrated high intensity interval training exercises on a number of occasions in previous articles, so for detailed instructions and demonstrations, please see this link.
Yoga After 50
While I believe you need to incorporate more intense forms of exercise for optimal health, such as anaerobic exercise (high intensity interval training) and strength training, there’s no doubt that milder, low-impact forms of exercise such as yoga can be an important part of a comprehensive exercise program. Yoga is particularly useful for promoting flexibility and core muscles, and has been proven beneficial if you suffer with back pain. A recent study has also shown that regular yoga classes can help improve atrial fibrillation5 (irregular heartbeat).
A recent New York Times article addresses the benefits of yoga after 50, pointing out that “yoga can be practiced fully and deeply at any age.” Naturally, as your body changes, your practice will need to be modified as well. This applies to any form of exercise; always listen to your body. In the article, Dr. Loren Fishman, a back-pain specialist in Manhattan who uses yoga in his rehabilitation practice, gives the following advice:6
“...[A]ging brings impairments of range, motion, strength and balance that can require modifications, even among veteran yogis, like using the support of a chair or the wall for many poses. In addition, students may begin to feel the effects of arthritis, injuries and other ailments that may require students skip certain poses altogether. Someone with osteoporosis, for example, may want to avoid headstands and poses requiring extreme spinal flexion or extension, while someone with glaucoma may want to avoid taking the head below the heart in poses like headstand, handstand, shoulder stand and standing forward bends.”
Yoga is an excellent choice for helping you improve and maintain your balance, so make sure to include one-legged standing poses. Carrie Owerko, a New York-based teacher of Iyengar yoga who was also interviewed, mentions Tree Pose and Eagle Pose as examples. If you need to use a chair or wall for support, that’s okay.
Yoga for Weight Loss and Health Maintenance
The following video, featuring Arthur Boorman, a disabled veteran of the Gulf War, is perhaps one of the most inspiring yoga success stories I’ve ever seen. His injuries had put him on a downward spiral for 15 years, and his doctors had told him he'd never be able to walk unassisted again. Due to his injuries, he couldn't perform high impact exercises, but one day, he came across an article about yoga, and the rest, as they say, is history...
If you've ever doubted the transformative power of a low impact exercise such as yoga, I urge you to take a look at this video. It's a truly remarkable story. Not only did he rapidly start losing weight, he also gained tremendous strength, balance and flexibility—to the point he proved his doctors' prognosis wrong by walking unaided in less than a year!
Interestingly, research7 published just last year discovered that yoga has a beneficial impact on leptin, a hormone that plays a key role in regulating energy intake and energy expenditure.
Both insulin and leptin resistance are associated with obesity, and impairment of their ability to transfer the information to receptors is the true foundational core of most all chronic degenerative diseases. Leptin tells your brain whether you should be hungry, eat and make more fat, whether you should reproduce, or (partly by controlling insulin) whether to engage in maintenance and repair. In short, leptin is the way that your fat stores speak to your brain to let your brain know how much energy is available and, very importantly, what to do with it.
Therefore, leptin may be on top of the food chain in metabolic importance and relevance to disease, if your leptin signaling is working properly.
When your fat stores are "full," this extra fat will cause a surge in your leptin level, which signals your brain to stop feeling hungry, to stop eating, to stop storing fat and to start burning some extra fat off. Controlling hunger is a major (though not the only) way that leptin controls energy storage. Hunger is a very powerful, ancient, and deep-seated drive that, if stimulated long enough, will make you eat and store more energy. The only way to eat less in the long-term is to not be hungry, and the only way to do this is to control the hormones that regulate hunger, the primary one being leptin.
Rounding Out Your Exercise Program
To truly optimize your health, it’s wise to incorporate a wide variety of exercises. As discussed above, each form of exercise has its range of benefits. Also, without variety, your body will tend to adapt and the benefits will begin to plateau. As a general rule, as soon as an exercise becomes easy to complete, you need to increase the intensity and/or try another exercise to keep challenging your body. I recommend incorporating the following types of exercise into your program. (The first three have all been addressed above):
- Interval (Anaerobic) Training
- Strength Training
- Core Exercises
- Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.
It’s Never Too Late to Take Control of Your Health
Following the advice in this article can go a long way toward maintaining healthy bones and muscle mass as you age. Granted, the earlier you start, the better, but remember, you are never too old to start exercising. Research shows that, no matter your age, you stand to gain significant improvements in strength, range of motion, balance, bone density and mental clarity through exercise. My mom didn't start working out until she was 74 and now, at the age of 78, she has gained significant improvement in strength, range of motion, balance, bone density and mental clarity.
You can view her demonstrating her strength training program in this previous article.
If you’re presently incapable of engaging in aerobic exercise, using Whole Body Vibration training may be just the thing to help you get more active.8 I recently discussed this in the article: How Whole Body Vibration Exercises Can Help Improve Fitness in the Elderly.
There’s really no time like the present when it comes to taking control of your health, and exercise is a crucial component of optimal health. I guarantee it will make a major difference in your energy level, and probably your entire outlook on life. It is really THAT powerful, whether you're 18 years old or 80!