Health After 50 Topic Page:
Spotlight on Exercise and Fitness
Most experts recommend exercise as the single most important anti-aging measure anyone can follow, regardless of age, disability, or general level of fitness. A sedentary lifestyle accelerates nearly every unwanted aspect of aging. Conversely, physical activity slows the erosion of muscle strength, maintains better cardiovascular and respiratory function, limits the risk of developing diabetes, and helps to prevent osteoporosis by increasing bone mass.
Exercise also facilitates digestion, promotes efficient bowel function, reduces insomnia, and lessens the risk of depression. Older adults who exercise regularly typically outperform non-exercisers half their age in many sports and usually have fewer risk factors for heart disease (such as high blood pressure, a poor lipid profile, and excess weight) than non-exercisers. The cardiovascular benefits of walking, jogging, cycling, and swimming are well-established, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the benefits of these aerobic activities extend far beyond the heart.
Although different and sometimes contradictory advice abounds, the basic elements of an exercise program designed to enhance health are clear: Include about 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise on most days, along with regular strength training and stretching. This recommendation is backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine. In reviewing all of the available evidence on physical activity and health, an expert panel convened by these two organizations concluded that adults should accumulate 30 minutes or more of physical activity on most, and preferably all, days of the week.
Here are some additional guidelines:
- An aerobic activity does not have to be formal exercise, such as jogging, cycling, or aerobic dance, but should be performed at moderate intensity—the equivalent of walking at a pace of three to four miles per hour.
- The 30 minutes of activity need not take place at one time. Short bursts of activity for eight to 10 minutes, three times a day, are enough, as long as they are performed at moderate intensity. Such activities include walking up stairs, walking short distances, and doing calisthenics or pedaling a stationary bicycle while watching television. Gardening, housework, raking leaves, dancing, and playing actively with children can also count— as long as the level of intensity corresponds to brisk walking.
- According to the panel, people who perform lower-intensity activities should do them more often, for longer periods of time, or both. And, of course, those who prefer more structured exercise can continue to benefit from it. The key is to pick activities that you enjoy and to tailor them to your own particular ability, guided by the advice of your doctor.
- Though rare, an unusual amount of exertion may trigger a heart attack in individuals with an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. Thus, physical activity should be incorporated into one’s lifestyle gradually, with a slow and steady increase in intensity.