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Becoming Stronger, Faster, Smarter in Old Age

On Monday's post about the newest old age suit, TGB reader Cathy Johnson commented that although the suits are probably a good thing,

”I wouldn't mind some breaking news that there's something that WILL make me stronger, faster and reverse some of the cognitive, visual and other sensory changes the past few decades have visited upon me.”

But there is, Cathy, there IS. I write about it here so often I worry I'm boring everyone into an early grave. It is called EXERCISE.

Here are the latest headline and blurb from one of the many elder health newsletters I subscribe to – this one from Harvard Medical School:

”WHAT’S THE ONE PRESCRIPTION THAT CAN LOWER YOUR RISK FOR 5 MAJOR DISEASES — WITH NO SIDE EFFECTS?

“Exercise has the power to keep you from developing high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and some forms of cancer. In fact, exercise can lower your risk of heart disease as effectively as medications!

“It can also help ease arthritis pain, sharpen your memory, trim your waistline, and preserve your independence.”

For the past year or two, not a week has gone by that I don't receive notice of a new study from somewhere in the world confirming these exercise outcomes. The results are consistent and if you are asking, many of them are longitudinal studies of hundreds and thousands of people who were followed and tested over many decades.

The connection between regular exercise and good health into old age is long past being speculative. It is established medical fact and I've been reading about it for so long, I don't keep as much track of specific studies any longer – just notes as reminders for times when I feel myself getting lazy.

Here is a short list of some information I've copied out from here and there that helps keep me motivated:

Your size affects some of the strain on your hips, knees, and back. Even a little weight loss can help. Every pound you lose takes 4 pounds of pressure off the knees.

“Get stronger to give your joints better support. Even a little more strength makes a difference.

“Stronger abs and back muscles help your balance, so you're less likely to fall or get injured. Add core (abdominal, back, and hip) strengthening exercises to your routine.

“Stand and sit up straight to protect joints all the way from the neck down to your knees. To improve your posture, take a walk. The faster you do it, the harder your muscles work to keep you upright. Swimming can also help.”

Regarding that last item, even slower walking is a big help, even if it is the only exercise you do. More is better but it is the moving itself that makes a difference.

In medical research circles, there is an ongoing conversation if not quite controversy about how much and how hard people of various ages should work out. Speculation varies from as little as 15 minutes three days a week to an hour and more a day.

Ignore all that and do what you can with the usual and important disclaimer: do not start any exercise (or diet) program without consulting your physician.

Even if you are mobility-challenged (as they say these days), there are seated tai classes, stretching classes and even weight training classes. You can use soup cans for hand weights. There are useful videos all over Youtube.

You don't need to join a gym or Pilates or any other program unless you want to. I can't afford those (not to mention that I'm unlikely to keep it up if I have to drive 10 or 15 or more minutes to get there and back) so I devised my own program by watching online videos, asking lots of questions of friends who have worked out for a long time and drawing on my own checkered life experience with calisthenics, aerobics, ballet, tai chi, weight training, stretching, etc.

Now I have developed a 45-50 minute routine for three days a week that combines all those types of exercise. On opposite days, I eliminate the weight-bearing exercises to give my muscles a rest and spend about 35 minutes or so with everything else. Sunday is my day off and I have kept up this schedule with minor, short lapses for almost three years.

Strength? You should see my silly, little, old lady biceps but I can lift those 20-pound kitty litter containers one-handed, and you sure wouldn't want me to kick you.

I am one of the most physically lazy people you know so if I can do this, anyone can. Besides a remarkable sense of well being, What motivates me are all those studies that are becoming boring in their repetition. Nothing else known to mankind keeps bodies and minds healthier than regular exercise.

Does that mean your vision will be come 20/20 again and reverse cataracts? That your senses of smell and tasted will be reinvigorated? That your wrinkles will disappear?

Of course not. But that should not stop anyone from going for the possible and after nearly three years of daily workouts, I don't recall ever feeling better – physically, mentally and emotionally.

The purpose of that Harvard Medical School newsletter I mentioned above is to advertise a guide, a booklet they sell about getting started with exercise.

They publish a lot of excellent booklets on a wide variety of health topics and infuriate me with every mailing that they are so expensive. Health nformation as important and good as theirs (and it is) should not be withheld for money.

I once emailed to discuss that issue with the Harvard Medical School publishers and received nothing but some public relations pap in return. Make what you will of that but after this post today, I should give you the option of getting the booklet if you want it – I can certainly vouch for the quality.

As the newsletter acknowledges and I personally know, the hardest part of regular exercise is getting started especially when you have never done it or have not done it for a long time. Titled Starting to Exercise, the guide helps

Exercise_E0315_cover
”...you choose the best, safest workout for you; shows you exactly how to do each move; and even helps you fit the routines into your busy schedule.

“You’ll also get photos and tips that explain how to do each move correctly, as well as ways to customize a move for your fitness level.

“Plus, you’ll get a special bonus section, 'Keys to staying motivated,' that will help you stick with whatever workout you choose.”

You can order the booklet here and choose print with free shipping for $20; an electronic PDF download for $18; or both for $29.

Even if exercise can't give you back your youth, it goes a long, long way to keeping you in good health and as our parents repeated to us, “As long as you've got your health...” Back then, I rolled my eyes when they said that; now I'm old enough to know they were right.


Comments

I wish I could just hire someone to exercise for me. Having a dog helps. He gets me out walking and playing with him. I need that chapter in the book you mentioned about keeping motivated. I've tried the gyms, the clubs, the videos but nothing lasts long before I'm right back to putting my head in the sand regarding the benefits of exercise.

Yes to exercise of any kind. I park waaaaaay out in the parking lots and walk across the lot. Then when i bring out groceries, etc, I always take the basket back, giving me even more walking.

I have a short exercise routine I do every day (except when grandkids are around and they run me ragged) that helps my upper body stay strong.

The one area where I need to do more is cardiovascular. I don't get my heart beating fast enough often enough. Except when the grandkids make me run!

All good points here, Ronni. And though I have not followed a structured exercise regimen for some time now, I am probably above average in my level of activity, going up and down a couple of flights of stairs usually a few times every day. I also do all the outdoor work at our house for the past few years, which, during much of the year, involves a lot of digging, walking, bending and lifting.

Still, I could do better. I have convenient hand weights that, if I were to sit in front of the television or next to the computer, I might use several times a day. I also have a treadmill in the basement, currently covered with boxes of stuff, so there is no excuse not to clean it off and visit it for it a few times a week. But I have to admit, like Jean R., to difficulty keeping motivated over time, to stick with a regular exercise routine. I've tried to rationalize that it's unnecessary, given my level of daily activity and overall strength (I, too, can heft those 20 lb and larger bags of litter like nobody's business), but that's probably a cop-out.

What I really was yearning for, in my comment you mention, is a miraculous return to the eyesight, good teeth, speed and ease of my youth. As the Big Yellow Taxi song goes, "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone".

I'll try to follow your example and do a better job on the exercise, at least.

And staying active will help if you have a medical emergency later in life. Your body is better able to handle recovery.

Best to get out and get moving!

I'm fortunate that I've always loved to run or walk--especially near water bodies, such as the Charles River, Lake Washington, and various beaches. I always grab my binoculars when I go to check out birds along the way.

I'm fortunate to live in a wonderfully scenic area. Last Saturday my husband and I walked for over a mile, enjoying clear views of the snow-capped Olympic Mountains. (We saw many people out walking their dogs.)

I do belong to a fitness center, but it's a last resort for when it's extremely cold, wet, or windy in Seattle.

I track my time and mileage with a cheap ($20) pedometer and put the info into the PresidentsChallenge.org website. The website gives points for many activities, including gardening, weight-lifting, using a treadmill, and house-work.


You are so right, Ronni.

Walking is great.

Walking helps you plan, create, meditate, clear your mind of daily stressors, stuff you can't control, like hard news.

We walk in Florida an hour a day, either on Indian Rocks Beach, or Walsingham County Park. Beautiful walks. I walk weekends with my sister.

In Montreal, our communities all have recreation centres- seniors can join for fitness classes at 50% off regular price. So I take Pilates, two Zumba classes and a line dancing class, all for about $150 total, for 4 months of classes, fall, spring.

I don't skip these classes, and have met a bunch of fun people who love dancing, love working out.

Pilates is great for core strength.

Mister GPS and I are also in a cycling group. We bring a lunch, ride all the trails on and off the island of Montreal, about 40k a week, during summer.

I garden like a maniac and walk to my mom's house sometimes, wearing my MP3 player. Takes me an hour and a half to go 7 kilometres.

I didn't always work out like this. I started slowly, and then found out how much I love to dance. It just continued from there.

High five to all seniors who discover something they love and stick to it.


When my husband was in rehab years ago we saw Wii Bowling used for exercise - even combined with balance balls and walkers. We ended up buying a Wii set and now I use Wii Fit daily for jogging, stepping , balance games, yoga, and strength training.

Being Type A, I am always competing against myself for better scores...and occasionally my husband. And the weather doesn't matter.

Thank you, thank you, Ronni, for starting this conversation re: exercise. Almost every day I tell myself I'll get back in the groove if only I will acquire a new, reliable alarm clock and give up stretching out my breakfast for hours watching TV "news". It's so much easier said than done.

Lucky me. I live in a smallish city with a good Parks and Rec dept. where exercise classes for all ages are offered and are quite affordable. Two mornings a week I go to a class designed for over 55s which includes age appropriate aerobics, upper body weights and toning and closes with a yoga stretching and relaxing time. It's perfect for this almost 80 body.

Two other mornings I go to the same place for "Silver Sneakers", a nationwide program promoted by Humana and designed for elders with their various physical limitations. What I like about these two groups is the sociability involved along with the exercise. I believe that studies also show that elders who keep in touch with others also receive health benefits. So I find these classes doubly useful.

Exercise is absolutely important for mobility. I like doing the Japanese calisthenics...Doing those regularly provides terrific movement and will lubricate your joints and keep you from getting stiff...

I do [IT] daily (at least five days a week) plus a 30-40 minute daily walk at least five times a week. Once a week I work with a high-intensity weight training coach (I started two years ago). For that I go to a gym and it takes 30 minutes. Like you, Ronni, I'm proud of my biceps. At 60, I'm stronger than I've been all my life, which just amazes me.

Well, there are some side effects of exercise -- bad knees, bad ankles, strained back, etc. But that being said, I agree wholeheartedly, light, sensible exercise (think, walking) will help us all live longer, better lives.

Good post and good comments. Sometimes I just put some upbeat music on and dance around my living room. Gives me good exercise plus some great mental euphoria. -- barbara

Even with lots of exercise knowledge, now in my early 70s I lack motivation. Artificial joints and overweight aside, I know there is exercise that I could and should be doing. Not surprisingly, my sisters, who live at some distance, are in the same boat. Now, I get accountability by checking in with them. "Did you go [to the gym/pool]?" Feels good to say Yes. We laugh and scoff at our procrastinations. It's fun, and it's helpful.

I am a classic example of what happens when you stop exercising. My last fall was a wake-up call for me.

I will try to stay motivated and continue with the exercises I learned during physical therapy and not follow my usual lazy pattern of skipping a day here and there, which soon becomes not exercising at all.


I, and a number of people I know, provide proof that all the exercise in the world does not necessarily prevent arthritis from destroying joint space and thus requiring a hip or knee or finger joint replacement surgery. I know plenty of people who are not overweight, either, who have suffered from arthritis and needed joints replaced.

I don't need an exercise plan...I have a cat! Believe me I don't get much sitting time with his constant demands--"let me-owt, let me-yin...time to feed me...let's play"...repeat throughout the day.

I can get up from a sitting position without holding on and reaching under the furniture for the toys I just tossed to him are both good exercises.

I've enjoyed walking and hiking all my life and didn't learn to drive till in my 30's. Now I have a knee that complains after a mile of walking, so I do shorter walks. I think we needn't worry so much about "getting exercise", if you have a house, a yard ,a pet and loved ones to care for-that involves quite a workout. Our daily routine probably includes enough exercise if we stop to think about it...let's give ourselves a break.

Now get up off that chair and go DO something! ;-D

Costco has 42 lb. kitty litter. It's a work out.

I fully agree that exercise does wonders...especially outdoors. I walk year round and swim all summer. Also do 3rd age yoga. And meditation also keeps me centered and focused on the world around me.

What a great time for you to be posting such an article, Ronnie! Just as we are balefully eyeing our weigh scales after the holidays. But I agree, it's not only about weight. Exercise does so much more. I'm an avid fan, and exercise at the gym and at home (in my makeshift home gym) almost every day. Thank you for the reminder to keep at it!

Simka...
No one says nor, I hope, does this post imply that exercise necessarily prevents disease of any kind. But it does go a long way to helping keep us healthy longer and in fact, in at least once case - arthritis - exercise helps many patients reduce joint pain and live with fewer or even no pain medication.

Hundreds of worldwide studies prove the value of exercise but you are correct - a lot of our health or lack thereof is a still a mystery to science but this one thing - exercise - is a magic bullet for healthy life for millions of people.

I started doing yoga in my 20s and have never stopped. Now, at 68, I am more flexible than I was when I started. My yoga teacher is 80 years old and a real inspiration to me. He teaches four classes a week and is in better shape than I am.

I also love walking, and make a point of walking 5 miles a day, six days a week. I now have a Fitbit to keep me honest on making those miles, but it isn't' too hard. Usually I integrate it with errands--going to the library, drug store, etc. I have a machine at home for when the weather is too bad, but I find that boring so I go out in all but the driving wind and rainstorms.

The final piece of my workout is weight lifting, which I get through by watching TV while I'm doing it.

My belief is that the best exercise is the one you'll do. I truly love both yoga and walking, so it's not hard to keep going. Weight lifting is a drag, but I make myself do it and use distraction to carry me through.

I think all this has helped me avoid (so far) the diabetes that runs in my family. I'm not on any prescription medicine, and though I have a bad knee, I keep moving because it hurts worse when I don't move it!

I had my every other year physical yesterday and got lectured by my doctor for not exercising..my injuries have made exercising painful - sore knees, hip, back etc. I was most interested in the comment about seated classes..guess I need to check that out. I need an exercise buddy though..when I had one, I walked every morning!

Please carry on saying this until you are blue in the face. It's a mystery to me why people resist this lifesaving message when it blares at them five times a day from every source. Thank you Ronni.

I walk up & down 4-6 flights of stairs a few times a day (14 steps each flight), do deep-knee bends and/or neck & shoulder rotations while I wait for the elevator, perform Kegel exercises between subway station stops (no one knows!), squeeze a hard rubber ball in my hands and rotate my ankles while watching TV. I try to "multi-task" exercise while something else is happening because I sure don't like regimen.

A friend gave me a FitBit; I thought I'd never use it but it's fun, and I got hooked. Keeps me moving though our very cold winters.

In bad weather (or at night), as Cathy wrote, "...going up and down a couple of flights of stairs...." can be good for getting the heart rate up. When my heart rhythm goes boinkers, I head to our basement stairs. Depending upon how long it's been since I've climbed stairs, I make 3 to 20 round-trips down-and-up the stairs. Anything to get my heart rate above 120!! That straightens out my heart rhythm about 99.99% of the time. Of course, I prefer to be outside in the mountains where it is a simple matter to get above 140 beats/minute.

Nancy Wick said it so well in a comment above: "My belief is that the best exercise is the one you'll do." There are so many options available. If something doesn't click with you, you can give something else a try. In good weather I enjoy hiking nearby, watching the seasons, birds and wildflowers. Winter finds me at the gym which isn't as much fun, but oh my the weight machines, rowing machines and various ellipticals are excellent. My gym had t-shirts printed with, "If you don't take care of your body, where will you live?

Spot on!
We know the expression: exercise is (the best) medicine. But it's true.
Whether you're 20 or 90.
As Ronnie pointed out, the biggest side effect: you feel better and stay healthier.
It's a myth that we lose muscle because we age, it's because we stop using it. Studies abound showing 80 year olds and beyond, building muscle.
All the examples above are inspiring personal reports of exactly how effective it is!
You are never too old.
A combination of cardio (walking/cycling/dancing) and strength (resistance exercises) with balance and flexibility does the job!
That's why dancing is so excellent.
Regular exercise is also beneficial for our brain and mental health. Dancing is ideal: it's a three-in-one: aerobic, strength & balance and complex activity which stimulates new connections in our brains (neuroplasticity) and the critical social interaction (laughing and friendship)
As we sculpt muscles, we can also sculpt brains.
Lovely post. Thanks, Ronnie!

The first thing that struck me, when hearing about someone inventing and "old age suit" was...what is wrong with these people. Shouldn't they have been working on a "make me young again" suit? Now that is something that might sell.

Until then, I agree that exercise seems to be the only thing we have, for now. But it is SO boring! Yet, I know it has to be done. In fact, I am writing this now, just so I can put off for a little while longer, those damn boring exercises. Oh well, let's get it over with...

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