Active While Aging: The Key to Wellness

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Resources

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 Medicine62(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 ONE8(5), doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063031

Deslandes, A. (2013). The biological clock keeps ticking, but exercise may turn it back. Arquivos De Neuro-Psiquiatria71(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. Gerontology44(4), 239-244. doi:10.1159/000022018

Gremeaux, V., Gayda, M., Lepers, R., Sosner, P., Juneau, M., & Nigam, A. (2012). Exercise and longevity. Maturitas73(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 & Behavior39(2), 183-190. doi:10.1177/1090198111426768

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5 thoughts on “Active While Aging: The Key to Wellness

  1. Completely agree that living a healthy active lifestyle is less like the exception and should be more like the rule. I was already aware of the massive benefits of having at least a moderately active lifestyle can have on an individual but was surprised to find out that when working out this can actually improve memory in the hippocampus. We are all aware that as we age so does the body but I agree that age should not define how we feel as individuals. Age none the less is just our biological factor of how old we are but how we feel physically and mentally all can be worked on if not improved every day. I am a very active person as well and I have always noticed when I go running at the near by lake, an elderly male in his late sixty’s running every Saturday. Not only is this person running but he is extremely toned and on occasion runs with his shirt off with extreme confidence! I highly admire elderly individuals to take their health into their hands by making the decision to do something now about their health and not later.

  2. Exercise and well being among the elderly is a very popular topic, and I think you covered it well in that you did not just talk about what they could do, but also exactly how exercising could help the aging population. I think it is beneficial for people to understand they need to exercise not just when they want to lose weight but also to help themselves physically, emotionally, and cognitively. I loved your example of Gabby, and it is true! The gym is not only filled with young people, but also many many older people, and it is great.

  3. I found this blog to have a lot of good information about the topic of exercising while aging. Exercising at any age is important, but even more so as we get older. I thought you covered the topic extremely well and gave good examples. I liked how you went in depth, how important exercising is for many different reasons, not just physical. The example of Gabby was a great way to get the readers interest in the beginning. It was a great way to start off the blog.

  4. Staying physically active is so important to our health as we age! I’ve written a few papers on this topic in the past and I am always fascinated to read and learn more about it. I think it is important to point out what you mentioned regarding increasing our mobility, strength, and agility as a positive, because this is an area we should all work on as we move in to our later years. The added benefit of improving your mental health with exercise is also a valid reason as to why it is so important to stay fit as we age. Great read, thanks for the post.

    Darren

  5. It is clear that physical activity holds many benefits to our health. How it benefits one specifically at an older age is what interests me. This post not only answers my interest, but it goes into detail providing the physical, mental, and social impact that physical fitness has as one ages. One statement that has caught my attention was that if an elderly individual starts exercising during a “critical window”, it can prevent dementia and improve the health of the cognitive state. It would really be helpful to know what the “critical window” is. Regardless though, the sooner an individual starts to exercise, the better health-wise they are. Physical activity can only improve one’s health rather than damage it. So why not take exercising seriously and incorporate it into our lives early rather than later.

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