Feature Archive

Battling Nature (Part 3): Soldiers in the Field

Science and Aging

WebMD Feature

This is the last in a series on what scientific discoveries are revealing about the aging process and how the findings will change the way people age.

Though more than 30 years have passed since Dr. Howard Wechsler was discharged from the army, the 62-year-old San Franciscan isn't done fighting yet. These days, he's not fighting the type of war he fought in the jungles of Vietnam. Wechsler is fighting a different battle -- the battle to stay young, healthy and fit -- against time, the basic tenets of biology and the natural progression of life itself.

The fight isn't easy, health experts are saying. It requires an unwavering discipline and motivation to exercise regularly, eat right and maintain a positive attitude, elements crucial in holding back diseases of the enemy -- old age.

No Sweat, No Gain

Wechsler's tactic is to be on the offensive, making exercise one of his weapons of choice.

He works out three times a week, with each routine including 20 minutes on a cardiovascular machine and 40 minutes of weights and other muscle-strengthening exercises. With his trainer's help and good humor, Wechsler said that exercise has been rewarding, allowing him to stay active and travel and do as much as he'd like.

"My goal is fitness and the quality of life I'll achieve by being my fittest," the retired anesthesiologist said.

Wechsler is doing just the right thing because exercise is "one of the most important factors in reducing the effects of the aging process," said Miriam Nelson, director of the Center for Physical Fitness at Tufts University and author of the best-selling book Strong Women Stay Young.

Exercise offsets the body's natural tendency to gain body fat and lose muscle and bone mass, which starts at age 35. Without exercise, loss of muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness quickly follow, making any type of physical activity more difficult.

In addition to helping a person stay trim, regular exercise also reduces the risk for heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity and depression, while improving self-confidence, sleep quality and self-esteem, said Nelson.

One of Nelson's studies was landmark, examining women age 50 to 70 who had always been sedentary. After one year of strength training twice a week, the women became 75 percent stronger. The women also lost fat and gained muscle and bone mass in their hips and spines.