When recalling the people I met while working the front desk at a health club, Gabby sticks out vividly in my mind. Gabby always came in with a smile, ready to take on Zumba, spinning class, weights, or the treadmill. Her multiple hour-long workouts paid off though: she was fit and strong. I knew she was older, but imagine my surprise when I looked up her age: 67! Clearly the exercise craze is not only for the young. People like Gabby are becoming less like the exception and more like the rule. It is common knowledge that consistent exercise combined with a healthy diet is conducive for one’s current general well-being, however, there is a growing plethora of information indicating it may also be beneficial for one’s future well-being. Extensive research indicates that exercise can increase longevity and enhance quality of life during the aging process by improving cognitive function, boosting overall physical health, and elevating mood.
First, it is important to briefly discuss the components of and possibilities within the aging process. According to one group of researchers, aging is defined as a “natural and complex physiological process influenced by many factors, some of which are modifiable” (Gremeaux, Gayda, Lepers, Sosner, Juneau, & Nigam, 2012). They go on to subcategorize aging into three groups: 1) Regular or normal aging, where genes dictate the decline in physiological functions, 2) Pathological aging, which is a result of diseases and impairments such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and dementia, and 3) Successful aging, referring to physical and mental upkeep and the ability to function without chronic illness or disease (Gremeaux et al., 2012). Most people would ideally prefer to age successfully, which includes not only living longer, but living better. Exercise can help them in several ways.
One of the most obvious ways exercise can improve the quality of life is by improving overall physical health. As aging occurs, everything in the body naturally and inevitably slows down. By age 60 it is estimated that about 30% of the body’s functional capacity will diminish – both the heart and metabolism become slower, bones lose their density, and muscle mass and strength diminish (Deslandes, 2013). Some of these aging effects can be partially reversed or halted through a combination of cardio and strength-training exercises. One study found that a consistent moderate-intensity workout regime could help in decreasing the risk of falls while increasing mobility, strength and agility. Furthermore, research is encouraging to late starters: those who were not frequent exercisers in their youth can enjoy the full physiological and functional benefits from working out (Seguin, Heidkamp-Young, Kuder & Nelson, 2012).
In addition to physical fitness and health, exercise has been found to improve cognitive activities such as general cerebral function and memory and reduce the risk of dementia. Due to its positive impact on the hippocampus, exercise has been shown to improve memory and executive function in the brain (Deslandes, 2013). Numerous studies have examined how exercise may help alleviate the onset of dementia. One estimate states that those who engage in higher intensity exercises can lower the risk of dementia by up to 40 percent (Howard, 2012). Another study looking at people with mild cognitive impairment examined exercise as a possible intervention against dementia during a “critical window” period. The results indicated that a consistent and long-term regime of strength and aerobic training can help improve the cognitive decline associated with acquiring dementia (Davis, Bryan, Marra, Sharma, Chan, Beattie, & Liu-Ambrose, 2013).
Working out can also elevate mood and decrease the intensity of major depressive disorder and other mood disorders. First, the increased mobility, strength, and agility attained from working out can naturally improve mood, because seniors are able to live more independently, fulfill their daily tasks on their own, and potentially engage in new activities (Engels, Drouin, Zhu, & Kazmierski, 2000). Exercise can also benefit those who struggle with more serious maladies, such as depression. One study discovered that when depressed seniors engaged in aerobic activity and resistance training on a regular basis, symptoms of depression were moderately to significantly reduced (Babyak, Blumenthal, Herman, Khatri, Doraiswamy, Moore & Krishnan, 2000). This research has important implications for the mental health treatment elderly receive, not only because it is shown to be effective, but because it seems like it has the potential to be an inexpensive alternative to medication.
The importance of exercise extends far beyond aesthetic reasons but rather, it serves a much greater purpose: to create a vital life through the enhancement of cognitive function, improvement of physical health, and reduction of depressive symptoms. Society often views avid proponents of exercise as being young-bodied, but this is simply not the case. Older people have as much, if not more, to gain from breaking a sweat – staying strong, staying cognizant, and staying young!
Babyak, M., Blumenthal, J. A., Herman, S., Khatri, P., Doraiswamy, M., Moore, K., & … Krishnan, K. (2000). Exercise treatment for major depression: Maintenance of therapeutic benefit at 10 months. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62(5), 633-638.
Davis, J. C., Bryan, S., Marra, C. A., Sharma, D., Chan, A., Beattie, B., & … Liu-Ambrose, T. (2013). An economic evaluation of resistance training and aerobic training versus balance and toning exercises in older adults with mild cognitive impairment. Plos ONE, 8(5), doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063031
Deslandes, A. (2013). The biological clock keeps ticking, but exercise may turn it back. Arquivos De Neuro-Psiquiatria, 71(2), 113-118. doi:10.1590/S0004-282X2013000200011
Engels, H. J., Drouin, J. J., Zhu, W. W., & Kazmierski, J. F. (1998). Effects of low-impact, moderate-intensity exercise training with and without wrist weights on functional capacities and mood states in older adults. Gerontology, 44(4), 239-244. doi:10.1159/000022018
Gremeaux, V., Gayda, M., Lepers, R., Sosner, P., Juneau, M., & Nigam, A. (2012). Exercise and longevity. Maturitas, 73(4), 312-317. doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2012.09.012
Howard, Beth. (February/March 2012). Age-Proof Your Brain: 10 Easy Ways to Stay Sharp Forever. AARP The Magazine, 53-54, 56.
Seguin, R. A., Heidkamp-Young, E., Kuder, J., & Nelson, M. E. (2012). Improved physical fitness among older female participants in a nationally disseminated, community-based exercise program. Health Education & Behavior, 39(2), 183-190. doi:10.1177/1090198111426768