Posted on Nov 27, 2020, 3 p.m.
It has been well established that exercise is important at any age, but research is showing that exercise may have the most significant impact on older adults. With age, the body undergoes many changes some of which can be degenerative and debilitating to health, but the good news is that exercise can help to slow these age-related issues or better yet it may even help to prevent them from occurring in the first place.
When it comes to healthy ageing exercise really is the closest thing to a miracle there is with its myriad of benefits that come with regular physical activity. Routines with a mix of exercises to increases endurance, balance, strength and flexibility help in many ways, and beyond the physical benefits there are emotional benefits as well. There is a long list of different benefits for adults over the age of 50 who exercise on a regular basis, but there are some that stand out more than others.
Longevity and Independence
Exercise on a regular basis will help older adults maintain their independence later in life, although this is actually a culmination of several benefits. There are several factors that affect the ability to live on your own in elderhood, these factors are not just elements of overall health and wellbeing they are key drivers of healthy longevity. The better you markers the more likely you are to be able to retain and continue to enjoy independence.
A study published in Rejuvenation Research notes that "functional independence is directly dependent on physical fitness," pointing out direct relationships between physical fitness levels in older adults and the risk for muscle loss, cognitive decline, heart disease, and disability which all influence independence and longevity. According to Harvard Health Publishing, exercise does not have to be overly intense, reporting that walking daily can decrease the chances of becoming disabled by 28%.
Heart disease has many forms, and according to the American Heart Association, it is a leading cause of illness and death among older adults. The heart changes with age meaning that you are more likely to have heart problems the older one gets, but exercise can help to fight against the many forms of heart problems. A study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology shows that it is never too late to start exercising and that it is most important for older adults.
Exercise strengthens the muscles which includes the heart and it helps to keep weight in check. Keeping the heart healthy is especially important in older years to help avoid heart disease, heart failure, stroke, and other life-threatening diseases. When you exercise your resting heart rate will slow over time and the overall stress on the heart decreases; keeping the heart in shape will help to slow cardiovascular ageing which leads to a more healthy, active life.
A mounting body of significant evidence shows the promise of exercise as a preventive tool against cognitive diseases. Studies show links between physical activity and a reduced risk of dementia. Much of these benefits may be due to the improved circulation to the brain. Exercise affects the brain in many ways such as increasing heart rate and brain oxygenation, increasing hormonal release leading to growth in neurons and their supporting cells, and promoting brain connectivity and plasticity, providing sharper memory and concentration, better sleep, and building better coping mechanisms for future mental and emotional challenges.
A study of brain autopsies published in Neurology associated exercise with a reduced risk of cognitive decline, even in older adults who had brain lesions. Another study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings associated cardio exercise with higher gray matter volume which helps the brain process information and contributes to sensory perception, decision making, speech and self-control. The Mayo Clinic also reports that those with a history generally have a lower risk of developing cognitive diseases later in life and the earlier one starts exercising the better.
Degenerative skeletal diseases can cause bones to become weak and fragile, this increases the risk of fractures, which is especially true after menopause when bone density can decrease more rapidly. Weight-bearing exercises have been shown to help reduce the risk for bone fractures in old age according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
Bone adapts to the stress it is placed under, exercising puts physical stress on the bones which triggers the bones to build new tissues and become denser and stronger. Weight-bearing exercises can include walking, dancing, climbing stairs, jumping rope, hiking, jogging, elliptical walking, yoga, and barre as a shortlist of examples. Resistance training exercises like weight lifting and resistance band exercises are recommended by the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Additionally, posture strengthening and balance exercises may help to reduce the risk of wrist and hip fractures that are commonly associated with osteoporosis.
Balance, Coordination and Fall Prevention
Among those over the age of 65 falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries according to the CDC. The majority of falls are preventable, the most critical elements of a fall prevention strategy are screening for potential safety hazards and regular exercise to improve balance, coordination, and strength of muscles and bones which are important to keep one on their feet.
A report published in Current Trauma Reports found that exercises that promote gait, strength and balance are especially effective at reducing fall risk. Bodyweight resistance training, leg and arm exercises, and walking can help to improve strength and balance. Core exercises are also recommended as a strong core is key to stability and full-body strength.
As people climb higher into elderhood they may battle with increased feelings of depression and loneliness, especially if they have lost many loved ones. 1 in 4 older adults are living with a mental disorder according to the National Council on Aging, and this number is projected to double to an estimated 15 million by 2030. The CDC says that older adults are at an increased risk of depression which is partly due to the increased risk of developing chronic diseases that often occur with mental illness.
According to the American Psychological Association, physical activity helps to improve emotional health as exercise has a direct effect on serotonin, among other happiness chemicals. A study published in Ageing Research Reviews concluded that resistance training, mind-body exercise and aerobic activity can help older adults overcome clinical depression in addition to following other medical treatments. Another study published in GeriPsych found exercise to be a feasible supplemental treatment for depression among older adults.
Among older adults age-related muscle loss is common, at one point it was thought that nothing could be done for this, but research has shown that you can increase muscle mass at any age. According to a report published in Aging Clinical and Experimental Research the best way to fight sarcopenia is with exercise, and another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Director Association showed that even walking can help to prevent sarcopenia.
On average older adults lose 3-8% of their muscle mass after the age of 30 and the rate is even greater after reaching 60 according to a study published in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. A study in Nutrients reported that those with sarcopenia may lose up to 50% of their muscle fibers by the age of 50. Losing muscle mass and strength makes it difficult to function and is a significant threat to independence, thus exercise, weight-bearing exercise, and resistance training becomes more important as we age.
When it comes to general health and wellbeing regular exercise is helping in supporting quality sleep which is an important part of both. A report published in PeerJ shows how exercise improved sleep quality and duration, especially in older adults. Even those with chronic insomnia benefit from exercise according to the National Sleep Foundation. Another study published in the Journal of Sleep Research found exercise to be a potential treatment for insomnia reporting "significant reduced insomnia symptom severity."
While there has been some debate over sleep being disrupted with evening exercise according to a study published in Sports Medicine there is no conclusive evidence to support that claim so if you prefer to exercise at night don’t let that fear of poor sleep stop you. But according to Harvard Health Publishing if you are exercising at night try to avoid high-intensity exercise too close to your bedtime as it could affect your ability to fall to sleep.
According to research, there are direct links between exercise and the prevention of many forms of cancer. But most of the well-established associations stem from observational studies that can’t necessarily prove the one factor results in the other, however, the evidence for causality is scientifically strong because there are clear biological pathways to explain the ways in which exercise may positively impact factors that reduce the risk of cancer such as decreased inflammation, balanced hormone production, improved immune function, and improved insulin sensitivity.
A study published in the European Journal of Cancer that included 38 cohort studies showed that physically active women had a lower risk of breast cancer than their inactive counterparts, and those who are physically active can reduce the lifetime risk of breast cancer by 9% if they do at least 150 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. Another study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found those with a high level of physical activity lowered their total risk of cancer by 10% compared to inactive counterparts, and physical activity may offer protection specifically against breast and colorectal cancers.
For those just starting an exercise routine, start off slowly and gradually build. Use lighter resistance, fewer reps, and shorter distances which will help you to avoid overworking your muscles and joints while testing how your body will respond to increased activity. Gradually build up, but don’t adjust too many factors at once, that way you can monitor what you changed to know where the problem is if anything goes wrong. When you control your workouts you reduce the risk of injury and increase the chances of developing proper techniques as you gradually ramp up your fitness routine.
The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults should engage in 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or 75-100 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or the equivalent combination of each intensity every week. In addition, muscle-strengthening activity should be done at least 2 days a week, with balance training in addition to aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity.
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This article is not intended to provide medical diagnosis, advice, treatment, or endorsement