From Our 2004 Archives

Exercise -- the Real Fountain of Youth

By Kathleen Doheny
HealthDay Reporter

SUNDAY, Aug. 15 (HealthDayNews) -- Want to age gracefully? Keep moving.

Regular exercise can reduce the risk of chronic disease -- such as heart trouble, diabetes, even cancer -- and keep you feeling and looking younger as you age.

While the message is clear, it's not getting through to the majority of older Americans. Only 11 percent of people aged 65 or older responding to a government survey earlier this year said they engaged in strength training two or more days each week, the recommended level to improve overall health and fitness.

And only about 6 percent of the respondents met the national objectives for engaging in both physical activity and strength training, according to the survey, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But minimal efforts at getting more physical activity offer big payoffs, experts say.

"Many of the chronic health conditions we experience as we age come from disuse rather than aging, and exercise can retard the onset of many of those conditions," says Colin Milner, head of the International Council on Active Aging, a trade association of more than 3,500 organizations that specializes in senior fitness.

Need proof? Consider this: Starting at age 50, people begin to lose 12 percent of their muscle strength and 6 percent of their muscle mass every decade. But weight training can reverse these effects in a big way. Two to three months of weight training three times a week can increase muscle strength and mass by one-third, making up for three decades of loss of muscle strength and muscle mass, said University of Maryland kinesiologist Ben Hurley.

And it's never too late to start, said Julie McNeney, vice president of education for the International Council on Active Aging.

"You can be as fit as you want to be," McNeney said. Of course, she added, "you can't regain the strength you had when you were 18 or 19."

Still, she said, seniors "can run in marathons, they can participate in the senior Olympic games."

Or they can just get off the couch and engage in less strenuous pursuits such as gardening and walking, and reap benefits.

McNeney urges older adults to first think about what their goals are, and what being fit means to them.

Whether your goal as an older adult is to run a marathon or lift groceries without straining, some of McNeney's advice is the same: Set realistic goals.

Dr. Jack Higgins is vice president for health promotion for Fifty-Plus Lifelong Fitness, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based organization devoted to the promotion of physical activity for adults at midlife and beyond.

"Start slowly," he tells older adults who have been sedentary. "Don't overdo. If you get hurt, it stops you in your tracks."

The myth that fitness is for the young is gradually fading, Higgins said. "I think people are starting to understand you don't stop moving when you hit 40 or 50."

"Much of what happens with aging, what goes wrong with the body, is due to under use rather than wear and tear," he said.

Anyone resuming or starting an exercise program should first get a doctor's OK, agreed Higgins and McNeney. Beyond that, they offer a host of other tips and guidance to get and stay motivated.

The goal is to work up to a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise at least five days a week.

If you're unsure of how much stamina you have, start out with walking as your primary exercise.

Later on, you can add strength training, such as doing weight machines or free weights. Get advice from a professional.

And don't neglect two other aspects of fitness -- flexibility, gained by stretching before and after exercise, and balance, crucial to prevent falling, especially as you get older.

With age, poor balance can make falls more likely, and falls can result in painful and sometimes life-threatening hip fractures, Higgins said. So doing a few balancing exercises daily can help. They can be as simple as holding onto a chair or a wall for stability, then raising one leg off the ground, then the other.

Exercising in groups is especially motivating for seniors, Higgins said. That applies double to those who are social but reluctant to exercise, he added.

If the prospect of joining a gym is intimidating, consider doing other, less-structured activities, such as mowing the grass or doing housework.

Finally, be sure to fit in activity throughout the day to get the recommended 30 minutes of activity, McNeney said. "If you watch two hours of TV a day, instead of sitting watching the commercials or channel surfing, get up and walk around the house, up the stairs, or march in place," she said. "If you would do that with a two-hour [TV] session, you would accumulate the [recommended] 30 minutes."

SOURCES: Jack Higgins, M.D., vice president, health promotion, Fifty-Plus Lifelong Fitness, Palo Alto, Calif.; Julie McNeney, vice president, education, International Council on Active Aging, Vancouver, British Columbia; Colin Milner, head, International Council on Active Aging; Ben Hurley, Ph.D., professor, department of kinesiology, University of Maryland, College Park

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