Is exercise the best anti-ageing technique?
Australians are living longer. The average life expectancy at the beginning of the 20th century was 47 years. Today it’s 77 years for Australian males and 82 years for females. In 1998, 12 per cent of the population was over 65. By 2016, 16 per cent of the population will be over this age. As the population ages, the mechanisation and urbanisation of society continues to develop, gradually reducing the need for physical effort to a bare minimum. All these “comforts” of progress backfire on our physical health.
Before the 20th century, scheduling exercise sessions was unheard of as the tasks of daily life kept the body moving. Today, a regular exercise program is essential for healthy ageing. Research confirms that regular exercise can significantly slow or reverse many changes associated with the age-related loss of strength, endurance and flexibility. The Heart Foundation reports 43 per cent of Australian adults do not exercise at a level to improve their health and this is contributing to rising levels of obesity, diabetes, falls, depression and some cancers. Put simply, it’s never too early and rarely too late to implement a regular exercise program to prevent or reverse age-related decline in physical health. Exercise maximises residual function and in some cases biological age may be reduced by as much as 20 years.
The 10 “biomarkers” listed in Deepak Chopra’s book Ageless Body, Timeless Mind can be positively enhanced with exercise:
- Lean body mass (muscle)
- Base metabolic rate
- Body fat
- Aerobic capacity
- Blood pressure
- Blood sugar tolerance
- Bone density
- Body temperature regulation
Goals of an anti-aging exercise program
1. To preserve or improve range of joint motion and muscle flexibility
Joint range of motion, or flexibility, naturally decreases with age due to changes in the connective tissue, ligaments and cartilage that surround, support and lie within our joints. By retirement age, lower back and hip flexibility may have reduced by eight to 10 centimetres (measured by the sit-and-reach test) and will continue on a downhill spiral unless an exercise program is initiated. By taking your joints through their full range of movement every day and stretching all major muscle groups, flexibility can be maintained or improved.
2. To increase muscle strength to enhance stability and prevent injury
Between 30 and 80 years of age, the average strength of our back, arm and leg muscles drops as much as 60 per cent. There is a progressive loss of muscle mass of four per cent per decade from 25 to 50 years and 10 per cent per decade thereafter. This results in an increase in the fat-to-muscle ratio, which slows down your metabolism, making you more susceptible to weight gain. The reduction in muscle mass and strength progressively impedes activities of daily living and increases the risk of injury. Recent studies indicate resistance exercise can lead to significant increases in muscle strength, resulting in functional improvements — for example, stair climbing and walking speed improve and people may be less reliant on walking aids. Strength training may also help to prevent or control the crippling disease, osteoporosis. The pull of your muscles on your bones as you lift weights encourages bone cells to be deposited, thus maintaining or increasing your bone density.
Poor balance due to visual deficits, neuromuscular impairments and muscle weakness is so often the cause of injury as we age. Falls and consequent fractures can be avoided if balance and stability exercises are included in an exercise program.
3. To increase cardiovascular fitness to improve heart and lung fitness
Endurance is measured by the amount of oxygen that can be taken up by our working muscles and may decrease by as much as 50 per cent by age 65. It’s difficult to ascertain how much of this loss is inevitable and how much is due to a reduction in physical activity, but regular exercise will certainly slow this decline. For the best results it’s important to exercise at a moderate intensity for 30 minutes most days of the week or three 10-minute bouts each day. Aerobic exercise has substantial benefits in reducing the risk of illness and improving general fitness. The Heart Foundation reports: “An active adult has approximately half the risk of dying prematurely from heart attack compared to an inactive adult.” It is important, however, to consult a health professional for advice before commencing an exercise program.
An anti-aging exercise program specific to your needs and related to the tasks you wish to accomplish will improve compliance and satisfaction with your program.
Posture (static and dynamic): An awareness of correct posture in standing and in performing everyday tasks will improve task efficiency and reduce the likelihood of injury.
Weight-bearing exercise promotes increases in bone mineral density, making it a key strategy for preventing and treating osteoporosis. Research indicates people who establish good exercise routines early in life have much stronger bones than people who start exercising later. Walking and resistance training are beneficial forms of physical activity for maintaining skeletal integrity. However, exercise should not be seen as a substitute for other therapies. Weight-bearing exercise will also improve your balance, stability and coordination.
Intermittent eanti-aging exercise: Recent research suggests exercise benefits accrue with short bouts that are not exhausting. For example, three 10-minute walks in a day are about as beneficial as one 30-minute walk and, remember, household chores such as gardening or cleaning are also exercise. Intermittent exercise can be easily fitted into your daily routine and poses few risks of injury.
Compliance: It’s estimated that only 50 per cent of all people who initiate an exercise program will continue the habit for more than six months. If you understand the benefits of exercise and set yourself realistic goals you may be more likely to stick to a program. Also remember the time frame in which to achieve these — on average it takes about six weeks before any changes are evident.
Types of anti-aging exercise
If you suffer from chronic conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, heart or blood pressure problems consult a health professional before commencing any type of exercise program.
Health Promotion Units (Healthy Lifestyle programs) of major hospitals offer health and fitness courses throughout the year. Classes include, for example, aquafitness, stretching, yoga, tai chi, weight control, and strength training.
Tai chi involves gentle, controlled and fluid movements to improve the body’s strength, balance and coordination. Some studies report it also lowers blood pressure. In some suburbs, groups practise tai chi exercises in local parks where anyone is free to join in. For further information and class locations see www.livingchi.com.au.
There are various walking clubs available throughout the country. Contact the Heart Foundation for local community groups and more information on exercise and your heart. Website: www.heartfoundation.com.au. Other recreational activities that also provide great workouts for your body include aquafitness, hydrotherapy, dancing, tennis, golf, hiking, swimming, cycling and gardening.
There is no question that the earlier exercise becomes part of our lifestyle the better, but it is never too late to start and the ever-increasing aged population will certainly benefit from physical activity.
Ingrid Arnott (B.Ed Phys Ed., B.App.Sci Physio) is a Health writer, Lecturer in Human Movement Studies, and Physiotherapist. Email: email@example.com