The Downward Spiral of Aging
Aging doesn't happen overnight. It’s a gradual process that starts long before the first gray hairs and accelerates with the years if you don’t counteract it with exercise.
BALANCE starts to degrade, as the body’s spatial sensory receptors gradually become less effective.
AEROBIC CAPACITY (maximal oxygen consumption), a key measure of cardiovascular function, begins to drop by 5 to 15 percent per decade; this makes the heart beat faster and work less efficiently.
BONE DENSITY DECREASES 1 percent per year after age 35, more rapidly for women after menopause, leaving bones weaker and more brittle. Women may lose 25 to 30 percent of bone mass by age 60.
MEMORY AND REASONING POWER begin a slow decline.
LOSS OF MUSCLE MASS accelerates. About 10 percent is already gone; expect to lose another 15 percent per decade.
WEIGHT GAIN, averaging ten pounds per decade from the age of 25, has mounting effects. With less muscle tissue, metabolic rate is reduced and fewer calories are burned.
BODY FAT increases as a share of total body mass, rising from an average of 25 to 43 percent for women and 18 to 38 percent for men in their 60s and 70s, and more fat is deposited around vital organs. Being in the upper range triples the risk of heart disease and stroke.
BALANCE PROBLEMS and falls increase. One-third of adults of 65 will fall at least once every year.
MUSCULAR STRENGTH drops with muscle mass after age 50; adults over 70 may have only 50 percent of the strength of young adults.
FLEXIBILITY of the lower back and hips has declined by three to four inches, based on “sit and reach” tests, restricting movements.
MAXIMAL OXYGEN INTAKE eventually drops below levels required for independent movement.
DEPENDENCE ON OTHERS is common after age 80, typically involving several years of partial disability and up to a year of full dependency.
The Good News
On one thing the experts agree: exercise is the most effective way to slow down the aging process. Moreover, it’s the one preventive step that can be low in cost and is entirely in your power. Being physically active helps prevent disease by increasing blood flow, improving cardiovascular function, and helping to normalize the body’s blood sugar and insulin levels. Exercise has been shown to reduce chronic systemic inflammation, a common autoimmune reaction that is a risk factor for some cancers and can cause a wide array of other health problems, including rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease. Weight-bearing exercise can also help strengthen bones that otherwise become less dense and more brittle with age.
This is not to say that exercise is a magic bullet banishing all physical ailments. It cannot restore tissue that has been destroyed. But it’s true that those who exercise live longer than others, and they typically live much better lives. Exercise has been shown to help older people enjoy good health, functional capacity, and quality of life for a much longer period than those who don’t keep moving. As the saying goes, “It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
Beyond helping to reduce or prevent some of the most disabling effects of aging, staying active is a way to:
Look and feel younger
A good workout gets your blood pumping, leaving you with a burst of energy and a healthy glow. It’s like an instant anti-aging treatment. Over time, a good exercise program will help you stand taller and move with more confidence and energy.
Help control your weight
Physical activity can certainly help you boost your caloric expenditure. But let’s be clear: exercise is just one element of a weight-loss program. Activities that build muscle, like strength training will also increase your metabolic rate so your burn even more calories when you’re at rest.
Give your brain a boost
Physical activity stimulates the release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which encourages the growth of nerve cells, strengthens neural connections, and protects them from damage. This may help explain why older people who get regular, moderate exercise like walking are less likely to suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s disease.
Avoid falls and injuries.
Falls are epidemic among the older population, and they can trigger a cascade of serious and even life-threatening consequences.
Ease chronic pain.
Too much rest can worsen pain over time, as inactivity leads to even weaker, tighter muscles, more stiffness in joints, and more focus on pain. Conversely, simply moving the body can be good therapy for pain.
Because bone is living tissue, weight-bearing exercise can help stimulate bone growth. Thus, activities like walking and strength training can help reduce osteoporosis risks.
Counter anxiety and depression
One fascinating study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that depressed people treated with exercise alone were far more likely to be depression-free six months after the end of the trial than those treated with medication.
Enjoy a better sex life
Overall, being fit will give you more stamina, boost your energy, and help you feel better about your body—all important ingredients for a healthy libido.
Reduce your need for prescription drugs
Experts say that getting more exercise could help many people take fewer pharmaceuticals, saving money and suffering fewer side effects in the bargain.
Gain confidence and pride in yourself
Feeling and looking better is an obvious boon. Who doesn’t like to hear people exclaim, “You look amazing!”? I also like being able to say, “No, thanks” when the hotel bellman offers to carry my suitcase. It’s good to know I’m plenty strong enough to take care of the routine physical tasks that come my way.
A sense of accomplishment
Becoming fit has given me a feeling of personal power and renewed sense of possibility. If I can do this, what else can I do?