As we get older, we tend to slow down a bit. Muscles, joints, and bones begin to feel their years of wear, and some days are more achy than others. Many might take these creaks as a sign that they need to be more careful and gentle with their bodies, but in fact, staying active and continuing to use the body with exercise is one of the key ways to stay healthier for longer.
For women, exercise becomes a crucial part of not only maintaining a healthy weight but also reducing the risk of certain types of cancer.
A recent report published by JAMA Oncology found that 300 minutes of moderate exercise per week was more effective at reducing body mass index (BMI) than a more vigorous 150 minutes, even without dietary changes.
Christine M. Friedenreich, Ph.D., of Alberta Health Services in Canada and the lead author of the study found a greater decrease in total BMI that included a greater loss of both abdominal and subcutaneous fat. Abdominal fat is a risk factor for a number of diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular issues.
Friedenreich pointed out that although any level of exercise is good, for post-menopausal women, 300 minutes is an optimal amount, saying:
“A probable association between physical activity and post-menopausal breast cancer risk is supported by more than 100 epidemiologic studies, with strong biologic rationale supporting fat loss as an important (though not the only) mediator of this association. Our findings of a dose-response effect of exercise on total fat mass and several other adiposity measures including abdominal fat…provide a basis for encouraging postmenopausal women to exercise at least 300 minutes/week, longer than the minimum recommended for cancer prevention.”
For many, light exercise is enough to improve health as they age.
A new study out of Oregon State University found that older adults who participated in light exercise were an average of 18% healthier than those who did not exercise. The study looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES, between 2003 and 2006. This survey is conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics. Because the survey is a nationally representative sample of the U.S. population, widespread conclusions can be extrapolated from it.
Elderly participants who participated in 300 minutes a week of light exercise, including walking, completing household chores, and playing easy games like table tennis, had lower BMI measurements, smaller waist circumference, and better insulin measures than those who did not. This light intensity movement can include things like walking around while talking on the phone or parking the car far away from entrances to stores.
Lead author Paul Loprinzi, Ph.D. and assistant professor of exercise science and health promotion at the University of Mississippi pointed out that light intensity exercise can be an important part of a wellness program for the elderly, saying:
“These findings highlight that, in addition to promoting moderate-intensity physical activity to older adults, we should not neglect the importance of engaging in lower-intensity, movement-based behaviors when the opportunity arises.”
New studies have also found that for the elderly, strength training is also important.
Yes, light exercise such as walking is a great way to maintain overall health, but strength training has tremendous benefit in preventing frailty, improving balance and coordination, and allowing seniors to maintain their independence for longer. One study rising out of a collaboration between the MedUni Vienna, Wiener Hilfswerk and Sportunion Österreich and sponsored by the Vienna Science and Technology Fund found that for independent living, strength training of the hands was key.
In the study, an intervention group worked specifically on building hand strength, increasing their strength by 20% overall. This group also showed an increase in physical activity along with improved cognitive function. Significantly, biologic measures of this increase were also demonstrated. Albumin, a protein in the blood whose absence indicates a higher chance of frailty, was significantly higher in the intervention group. And Dorner indicated that one of the biggest fears among the elderly was alleviated among the intervention group, saying:
“…the fear of falls was significantly reduced in the intervention group. This is very important, because the fear of falling leads to frail people moving less, and thus further depleting their muscular strength and increasing the risk of falls.”
Not only does exercise help prevent chronic illness, increase overall health, and decrease the fear of falling, it also works to decrease pain and increase mobility among the elderly.
An eight-week, low-impact exercise program designed and tested by the Hospital for Special Surgery saw dramatic improvements in pain and mobility levels among the seniors who participated regularly. Significantly, seniors who participated were more able to climb multiple flights of stairs; carry their groceries; and bend, kneel, or stoop. Ninety-one percent of participants felt less fatigue, and 97% reported less stiffness while completing the program.
All of these improvements are significant and allow elderly people to live independently for longer, but exercise also ups the ante and works hard to improve mental health in the elderly.
A new study out of the University of Illinois found that elderly adults who exercised not only had a higher volume of white matter in their brains but also displayed greater mental flexibility than those who did not exercise. This finding is a significant piece of the puzzle for those elderly people who would like to maintain their active independence for as long as possible.
Postdoctoral researcher Agnieszka Burzynska, who led the study with Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, noted that this is an objective measure of how exercise affects the brain and ultimately the quality of an elderly person’s physical and cognitive health, saying:
“Our study, when viewed in the context of previous studies that have examined behavioral variability in cognitive tasks, suggests that more-fit older adults are more flexible, both cognitively and in terms of brain function, than their less-fit peers.”
Exercise that includes a mix of strength training and low- to medium-intensity activity for at least 300 minutes a week provides the best benefit for the elderly in terms of physical and mental wellness.
How does your exercise program measure up?