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We’re not preparing properly for later years...
For many people, the view of exercise for older adults has been that it’s not to be taken seriously – after all, they’re in the “golden years”. They should be taking it easy. Many regard it as a waste of time, and perhaps even harmful to an aging body.
It is now known that older adults, even those in their 80s and 90s, respond to appropriate exercise training by becoming healthier and stronger.
Dr Walter Bortz, author of the books “Dare to be 100” and “Living Longer for Dummies” is 77 years old and has run a marathon every year for the last 35 years. He says, “Fitness for young people is an option, fitness for old people is an imperative.”
But, while we may know about watching our weight, diabetes risk, bone strength, arthritis and how we mustn’t fall, do we really know how to best prepare ourselves for daily life as we age? Chances are no. Most advice simply tells us to do something – walk, garden or swim. In fact, a common phrase is “Anything is better than nothing”.
We need better ideas and clearer plans for older adults, together with a stronger focus on building both strength and intensity in cardiovascular exercise. This can be done without risk of injury if it’s approached the right way.
Our suggestions are primarily aimed at those in their 60s and 70s, but apply equally to those in their 40s and 50s.
What activities do we need to prepare for?
Let’s take a look at the daily lifestyle of a couple in their late 70s, Bill and Jean. They have been quite successful at looking after their health, doing the sensible things, following a sound diet and taking basic precautions, getting a reasonable amount of exercise, and organising their affairs in a way that brings convenience and safety.
Things aren’t all that good, however.
Bill played golf on a 7 handicap until five years ago, but now lacks the strength to complete a round. He privately fears disappointment with his score if he did play, and this affects his general confidence – golf was an important part of his life. His upper body strength has diminished to a level that means he has to mow his substantial lawn in three separate sessions on different days. It used to be a vigorous pleasure.
Both Bill and Jean play bowls several times a week. Socially it’s still fun, but both feel well past their best sharpness of judgment, balance and coordination in the game – all of which are related. Their playing confidence has waned and again, this takes the edge off their enjoyment.
Jean’s arthritis in the knee and increasing tiredness take much of the joy out of gardening, once a major pleasure, and something she once saw as real exercise.
For each of them, routine activities such as using steps to change light bulbs, hang curtains or reach into a high cupboard have become significant physical challenges, and visits by their families, while eagerly anticipated, are also feared for their taxing effect.
An hour’s hilly walk along the river to the falls and back with friends every few weeks has become too taxing, and long-distance travel, once a mainstay of their lifestyle, stopped five years ago because of its pure physical challenge.
Is this as good as it gets?
No. They’re capable of the movement needed for the full life they’d like, but they have inadequate strength and energy. They run out of steam.
Bill and Jean’s situation can, however, improve with the right exercise programme: one that puts more power into activity that enhances their cardiovascular fitness, strength, flexibility, agility, balance and coordination. And gains in each bring gains in the others.
Bill and Jean can benefit even now from a new approach. And the younger we all start, the better the long-term result.
There’s not enough power and endurance in our plans
The problem: Current advice for older people tends to focus on continued exercise, joint mobility and flexibility, and activities that minimise risk to our bodies. These are fine in themselves, but there are now strong indicators that we can do more in later life, and in fact that a programme that doesn’t give emphasis to cardio fitness and strength building is simply not enough, if we want to avoid restrictions and discomfort in later years.
Fortunately evidence shows that all this capability is there for the taking – older people can achieve in similar relative proportions to younger exercisers.
Understanding what makes up physical fitness
It’s important to have a clear view of the major components of physical fitness, the state in which we’re healthiest and most capable of doing the things we need and want to.
(We’re not referring to diet or body composition, which are two other major aspects, although body composition is affected by exercise.)
Capability and lifestyle effect
Muscular strength is the amount of effort a muscle or muscle group can exert at one time.
Strength is essential for most simple daily tasks such as shopping, mowing, gardening, cleaning, getting up from a low chair and children-related activities.
Muscular endurance is then the ability to continue to perform the task repeatedly.
Muscular endurance is needed so that you can carry out the tasks repeatedly if needed i.e. so that you can clean the whole house in one go or mow the whole lawn in one session.
Cardiovascular endurance is the measure of a person’s aerobic capacity – the ability of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to the working muscles during sustained exercise.
Endurance is needed for routine activities such as walking to the shops and back (with a load of shopping), when travelling (walking around airports and sightseeing), climbing flights of stairs without pausing, or mowing the grass.
Flexibility is the range of motion at each joint.
Having complete freedom in common movements, without major stiffness and pain in your joints; turning your head to look behind when driving; bending over to tie your shoes or reaching for low or high items on the supermarket shelves.
Agility is the ability to change direction, footing or body position quickly or while maintaining a fast pace.
Being able to recover from a mis-step: this happens very frequently day to day, and mostly we don’t notice because it is so reflexive.
Balance is the ability to maintain stability whilst performing movements.
Again essential for common activities such as climbing a step-ladder to change a light bulb; climbing stairs easily; opening a car door while carrying a bag or a cup of coffee; carrying bags of shopping; lifting the Sunday roast out of the oven.
Coordination is the ability to perform complex tasks requiring the execution of more than one skill simultaneously.
Speed is how quickly a person can move from place to place.
Athletes such as 100m runners and sprint cyclists need to constantly try and improve their speed. For non-athletes, being able to keep up with brisk walkers and cross roads quickly.
Power is the ability of a muscle to exert a large amount of instantaneous force.
Athletes such as basketball, netball players and high-jumpers must be able to launch themselves to gain height. Tennis players need power in their serve to obtain maximum speed. Even being able to use a hammer and other tools effectively depends on power.
A deeper look at what we need… and why
We need more strength
We need more strength – applied or in reserve – more control and better results in what we choose to do in our later years. It’s not enough to have the ability of movement or the memory of it. We should have it (and can have it) today. It’s proven.
Yes, it means stronger muscles, and for some can mean bigger muscles – but not necessarily for all. Women don’t generally get “bigger”. Testosterone is a major driver of muscle size and women have far less of this hormone than men. And anyhow, muscle strength does not directly relate to muscle size but more with the nature of the exercise programme followed.
Yes, there are a few conditions and cautions, which we refer to later, but a newer level of strength and energy is largely in each of our hands with active strength training. Mere movement, or “any exercise is good enough”, is not really sufficient if you truly wish to be prepared for your later years.
(For the sake of definition: strength training = muscle building = progressive resistance training.)
STRENGTH TRAINING brings many health benefits which affect your lifestyle…
Improved flexibility and strength in ligaments and tendons
With age, these dry out, become brittle and less flexible, increasingly injury-prone, and less functional. Strength training does much to counteract this process.
Counteracts natural muscle loss, and makes more muscle
We lose 2-4 kg, or up to 10% of muscle every decade after the age of 20 if we do nothing about it. This increases to approximately 15% per decade after 50 and 30% after 70. Cardio (or general endurance) exercise does nothing to stop the loss over time though it may build and preserve a little mass at the outset.
Strength training replaces muscle lost through this natural process. A standard strength-building programme (for men and women, involving 25 minutes 3 times per week for 8 weeks) showed a 1.4 kg increase in muscle.
In another test, a group of seniors undertook an exercise programme for six months – twice a week for an hour each, using gym-style strength-building equipment. Scientists were expecting an improvement in strength, and got it – objective tests showed an average gain of around 50%, and participants felt they had more energy.
These older people showed an ability to build muscle that was no different from young people.
Strength training – building muscle – prevents muscle loss, adds more muscle, and thus maintains or improves our metabolic rate, burning calories more efficiently. Research shows that adding around 1.5 kg of muscle increases our resting metabolic rate by 7%, and ups our daily calorie needs by 15%. At rest, 450 g of muscle requires 35 calories per day for tissue maintenance, and during exercise muscle energy utilisation increases dramatically. Adults who replace muscle through sensible strength exercise use more calories all day long, thereby reducing the likelihood of fat accumulation which can lead to other health problems such as bad back, diabetes, knee problems and heart related illnesses.
Tests have also shown that strength training produced 1.8 kg of fat loss after three months of training, even though the subjects were eating 15% more calories per day. That is, a basic strength training program resulted in 1.4 kg more muscle, 1.8 kg less fat, and 370 more calories per day food intake.
We’re all different sizes and shapes and you should aim to achieve the best “real you” rather than a particular ideal. Regular physical activity provides health benefits to all sizes and shapes, and provides a real chance of achieving your own “best shape”.
Reduces lower back pain
Research has shown that strong lower-back muscles are less likely to be injured than weaker lower-back muscles. It’s proven also that patients with lower-back pain had significantly less pain after 10 weeks of strength training that targeted the lumbar spine muscles.
Reduces arthritic pain
Some 50% of arthritic pain relates to overweight pressure on joints. Furthermore, it is broadly accepted that strength-building exercise eases both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis pain because strong and flexible muscles, tendons and ligaments provide an important cushioning and supportive structure to problem joints.
Reduces resting blood pressure
Nearly half of over-65s suffer from hypertension and considerably more than this have some form of heart disease (US figures). Cardio fitness has long been associated with healthier blood pressure levels, but strength training by itself has been shown to improve resting blood pressure. Combining them both is the way to go.
Increases bone density
Walking provides improvements in bone strength, like most weight-bearing activity. But, because the benefits of most exercise upon the bones are specific to the target of the exercise, strength building should address all major body parts, including legs, hips, arms, shoulders, back and chest to provide the best increases in bone strength and thus, reduced injury risk.
Improves glucose processing
Strength training has been shown to considerably increase the efficiency of glucose uptake, an important factor in the avoidance and management of type-2 diabetes.
Reduces risk of colon cancer
Strength training decreases gastrointestinal transit time, (time taken for food to go through our system), speeding the process by approximately 50%. Colon cancer is associated with longer transit times, so it’s believed that strength training can reduce the incidence of colon cancer.
(Source Wayne L. Westcott, PhD; Reasons Every Adult Should Strength Train)
We need greater cardiovascular fitness
A timely reminder of the benefits of CARDIO EXERCISE …
More efficient cardiovascular system
- Lowered blood pressure
- More blood pumped per heartbeat and hence
- More oxygen output to the body
- Reduced resting heart rate
- More energy
Improved cholesterol levels
- Higher HDL (“good”) cholesterol
- Reduced risk of heart disease
Decrease in resistance to insulin which comes with age
- Better uptake of glucose from muscles, improved efficiency
Improved blood sugar balance
- Better avoidance/management of diabetes
- Improved immune system
Assistance in weight loss and weight control
- Sustained periods of exercise deplete the fat cells
Improved efficiency of all major systems
- Respiratory, circulatory, digestive, metabolic and cardiovascular
Reduced osteoporosis risk
- Density is increased in load-bearing bones
- Less anxiety, stress and depression
- Improved outlook on life
- Increased self-confidence
- Better-quality sleep at the right time
Improved cognitive function (brain power)
- From the age of about 30, brain function, and particularly memory, starts to decline gradually. But with cardio exercise, it appears this can be slowed. Twenty minutes of brisk walking every day will reduce the degeneration rate of the brain.
We need greater flexibility, balance, coordination, agility, power and speed
All movements require some degree of flexibility. Joints and muscles that are not flexible limit movement and increase the risk of pain and injury. When you improve your flexibility, you help to prevent strains and other problems. Normally not a problem for young people, lack of joint flexibility can become limiting after decades of lessened activity. Lack of flexibility is especially common in older adults.
Flexibility is best assured by stretching and warm-up exercises, which are as important as any exercise in your plan.
Balance, coordination and agility
Balance, coordination and agility are very closely related, and most often work together. All are very important throughout life and in younger years they are taken for granted. They need active development in later life because like so many things, they are skills that otherwise diminish.
Their use and effect are almost universal: from the instinctual response to the danger of tripping and managing balance, to matching the response and actions of young children. Even carrying awkward packages in awkward circumstances and turning our heads quickly to aid our vision in traffic and exercises that train these facilities bring more precision, safety, control and hence confidence to our many day-to-day activities. Most sports have a strong dependence on these skills, even when only engaging at a casual level of play. Combined with eyesight and hearing, strong balance, coordination and agility can help to bring true satisfaction to our life.
Power and speed
Power and speed are nearly always seen in combination and bring precision and effectiveness to our movements. They are heavily demanded at a competitive level, in sports such as tennis, basketball, volleyball, and even in the arts, such as ballet. Power is the explosive motion that is typically found in the baseball player’s swing, Tiger Woods’ drive, or in a rugby scrum’s heave. Speed is the short-term, rapid movement of a rugby winger with the ball, and a combination of all of these capabilities is seen in the few seconds preceding a soccer goal.
For normal daily life and casual sporting activities, the power and speed that can be attained through regular exercise for cardiovascular fitness, strength, flexibility, agility, and balance and coordination, should be sufficient and hence does not normally require any specific training.
“One of the myths of aging is to choose your parents wisely,” says John W. Rowe, director of the MacArthur Foundation Research on Successful Aging, one of the largest aging studies in the United States. “People feel there is a genetic program they are playing out. But since only about one-third of aging is heritable, the rest is acquired – that means you are responsible for your own old age.”
“In the fitness industry, there's the old saying ‘use it or lose it,’” Milner said. “But even if you've lost it, you can still find it again, no matter how old you are.” (Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging.)
Poor health is not an inevitable consequence of aging. There is ample evidence that much can be done to delay the onset of chronic diseases and functional limitations in older adults, and to minimise their impact if they strike. So start on the path now to less injury risk, more independence, an active life, more control, and more enjoyment.
Courtesy of www.fitnessandleisure.co.nz