As the ageing population increases, more and more of us are realising the growing need for different forms of exercise throughout our lives. If you’ve seen some of my recent social media videos or posts you know that this is something that is quite important to me.
Let me start by stating a very obvious fact – any type of physical exercise is likely to slow down the aging process to some extent. There are many physical indications which demonstrate this. For example, the one that I find most interesting (and I hope you do too), is a structure in our cells called telomeres. These structures are basically caps at the end of our DNA strands to protect them. The length of these telomeres decrease as we get older and the length of these have been strongly associated with our exercise level- in other words exercise slows down the degeneration of the telomeres and therefore the ageing process.
Physical ageing is obviously a completely natural process but it can still have a tremendously big effect on our bodies, some of which can be undesirable. In relation to health and physical fitness, there are eight simple ways in which ageing can effect you most: the loss of strength, loss of muscle mass, a natural increase in body fat, lower density of our bones, lack of agility/flexibility, increased risks of joint and bone injuries, a loss of balance and a loss of physical endurance. To a certain extent all of these things are inevitable, however the following paragraphs will give you ways in which you can combat the most significant ones – after all, that’s why you’re here!
Exercise reduces the risk of chronic illnesses/disabilities
Firstly, lets address the point of increased risk of joint/bone injuries and lower bone density. A study conducted in 2006 tested the effects of a four week specific exercise based routine on people with chronic lower back pain. After the 4 weeks they found that they had a significantly lower level of functional disability and pain than a control group that did not undergo the exercise programme. Other studies also support that a sedentary lifestyle is an important factor in causing functional disability. Research conducted in 2001 also concluded that any form of resistance or aerobic training helps to reduce the debilitating impact of osteoarthritis in persons aged 60 and over. Essentially, the key point to take away from this section is that any form of exercise seems likely to help reduce the risk of chronic conditions and to maintain strong bones. So, just start moving! No matter what you may end up doing.
Exercise and balance
Let me first start by confirming that balance levels decrease as age increases. This has been shown clearly by the level of falls that occur in the older population as well as research conducted in 2002 by the American physical therapy association in which they concluded that their research displayed an age related decline when testing balance using the berg balance scale.
Now many areas of exercise have been demonstrated to show improvements in balance however a updated study from 2011 concluded that exercise targeting our functional strength and co-ordination improved balance however only in the short term. We can draw from this that long term exercise prescription is vital when using activity to improve our levels of balance.
Exercising, strength and muscle mass
The points mentioned before regarding the loss of strength and muscle mass link closely together so I will address them together. This aging process is known as sarcopenia. A study conducted in 2006 based on muscle loss in the older population resulted in trend showing a natural decrease in lean muscle tissue mass as age increased, which in turn led to a decrease in muscle strength. They also noted that men lost nearly twice as much strength as women did over this 3 year study.
Another study which looked into strength training in the older population concluded that of the many claims about strength training in the older population only one was completely true – that you can build good levels of strength and muscle mass and that you can even reverse a decades worth of degeneration in the first few months of heavy strength training.
In regards to exercising to combat the loss of muscle mass and strength in the older population it seems that specific strength training is the most beneficial way to go due to it being most effective however it does not mean that it is the only form of exercise people should be doing.
Exercise and mental health
Mental health was not mentioned at the start of this article however it is a topic which is hugely important and so Im going to talk about it while you’re here. It is no secret that mental health deterierates as we all grow older, especially if and when we become homebound.
Straight away I believe it is important to mention that from my own experiences with myself and others that I have coached and worked with, as well as research conducted separately it is evident that exercise continues to ensure healthy cognitive brain function as we age. The last few sections have demonstrated how exercise can help us physically and now recent research has suggested using exercise as a non-pharmacuticle treatment for mental illness.
Research has concluded that a sedentary lifestyle significantly correlates towards depression and also that 22% of the elderly population suffer from depression – this may be partly to do with the decreased levels of exercise as we age?
Without considering a persons age multiple reviews have displayed exercise to be an effective treatment for depression as well as a preventative tool in the first place. When deciding on which types of exercise are best, it appears that both aerobic cardiovascular activity as well as strength training have been useful in both preventing and treating depression in the elderly population.
Before this becomes a ramble let be briefly talk about another huge part of mental health in the elderly – Alzheimers. Similar in the way exercise effects depression, physical activity has been said to be one of the most important lifestyle changes associated with the prevention of alzheimers disease. A 2007 study conducted in nursing homes showed that an exercise programme comprising of two hours a week improved the quality of life and slowed down the progressive effects of alzheimes disease.
Looking back over the article things are very simple. We now know the fundamental things which become challenged when we grow into later life and some ways in which to help counter them. From the evidence provided we can see that exercise of any kind will be beneficial when attempting to slow the aging process and its debilitating effects. Looking deeper into this we find that the strength training side of exercise is most beneficial for improving balance as well as the level of muscle mass we hold as we grow older. My personal recommendations are to be as active as possible throughout your life (which wont come as a shock to most of you) and when you eventually become part of the older population at special attention to balancing your exercise between strength sessions, co-ordination exercises and cardiovascular work.
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