Continuing improvement in medical facilities has ensured there are many older people in society today than at perhaps any other time. More people are living longer, and there’s a need for them to live active, healthy lives and be able to do everything, from the necessary daily tasks to recreational activities.
Too old to exercise?
There is a quaint story involving Arnold Schwarzenegger: A senior man came up to the bodybuilder and action star and asked him, “Am I too old to exercise?” Schwarzenegger replied: “You are too old not to!”
In the early 1900s, people were considered old in their 40s. Less than 50 years ago people seemed old in their 60s, but today thanks to the miracle of modern preventive medicine, many people feel sprightly and youthful at 80. My father is 75 and he plays three rounds of golf every week with his friend, who is 84.
I tell my senior clients to ask themselves this question: How old would you think you were if you did not know how old you were? In most cases, the disparity between the reality and the imagined age will give the answer to your fitness level. So if you are only 50 and feel like you are 60, then you have work to do. On the other hand, I can give examples of many in my camp who can quite regularly out-run or out-row their children.
The changes that come with ageing
A look at some of the major changes that accompany the ageing process makes it abundantly clear why sticking to a fitness and exercise regime gets more and more important as you age. As you grow older, your body will start losing muscle mass in a process called sarcopenia. Then there’s the deterioration of bone density or osteopenia. The basal metabolic rate or BMR, the rate at which your body burns the calories you consume in the form of food, also slows down. Both muscles and joints start losing their flexibility and their ability to generate movement. The sense of stability and balance also goes down. The cardiovascular functions also slow down, which means that the lungs and heart have to work harder and harder each year to pump blood and other nutrients to the muscles.
Every single one of these processes can be arrested and their effects subdued through a good exercise and proper diet.
Similarly, not exercising and not eating well greatly accelerate the processes.
For older people, it is imperative that they discuss any exercise regime with their physician so that the exercises help and do not aggravate pre-existing medical conditions.
The starting point has to be cardiovascular exercise, which offers the richest variety of health benefits for your body, including protection from a wide range of diseases. Pick any cardio exercise that you like—walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, rowing. Do it for 30-45 minutes at a pace that should bring on a mild breathlessness. In a University of Florida, US, study, Aerobic Exercise Training Responses in Young And Elderly Men And Women, published in 1993 in Medicine And Science in Sports And Exercise, it was found that older people and younger people’s bodies respond with similar intensity to the same exercise stimulus.
Ten sedentary men and womenin their late 60s and eleven 30-year-old men and women completed a 16-week cardio programme, all of them working out on a treadmill or a stair-climbing machine for 20-40 minutes at roughly 60-80% of their maximum heart rate. At the end of the 16 weeks, the young group increased their aerobic capacity by 12%. The older group increased theirs by an incredible 14%.
According to the study Aerobic Fitness Reduces Brain Tissue Loss in Aging Humans, published in 2003 in the Journal of Gerontology, the human brain gradually loses tissue from the third decade onwards. leading to decline in cognitive and memory performance. However, aerobic fitness can arrest age-related deterioration in tissue density in the brain. More importantly, the findings—also part of a 2010 University of Florida dissertation, Neural Correlates of Aerobic Fitness And Aging: A Cross-sectional Investigation Using fMRI, DTI And TMS—indicate that aerobic conditioning is linked directly to improving the tissues that play a central role in causing clinical syndromes like Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.
Just like cardio takes care of the heart and lungs (and mind), weight training will improve both bone density and prevent muscle loss. The best exercises for developing bone density are squats, lunges and step-ups for the lower body; and shoulder press or military press for the upper body. Choose weights that you can safely lift 15 times without tiring.
A series of studies conducted over the years have stated that muscles shrink with age, and these weight exercises not only prevent that, they also seem to increase the number of small blood vessels around muscles by up to 15%, potentially increasing endurance capacity. Since the overall process of muscle loss picks up pace after the age of 50, strength training for people above the age of 50 is especially critical. Fortunately, it’s never too late. Research demonstrates that even individuals over the age of 80 can fortify their muscles by participating in regular strength-training workouts. In the Melbourne Collaborative Cohort Study published in the October 2007 issue of Arthritis Care & Research, the researchers studied the effect of physical activity, in various degrees of intensity, frequency and duration, on knee structures in a total of 257 healthy adults between the ages of 50 and 79, and found that intense exercise prevents and helps osteoarthritis.
Most of the common age-related symptoms like lower back pain, neck pain and knee pain can easily be avoided with regular strength-training routines and stretching. The key word here is regular: You don’t have to push yourself hard, or do huge amounts of exercise, or get to athletic levels of fitness—you need to do a little bit of exercise, but you need to do it every day.
Ranadeep Moitra is a certified coach from the National Strength and Conditioning Association of America, and has worked with the Indian cricket team, the Bengal cricket team and the East Bengal Football Club. He currently coaches the Indian golf team.
The age-defying blueprint
Workout basics—what to do, when to do it and how much to do.
u Stretch muscles four-five times a week. Yoga is a great stretching protocol.
u Participate in an aerobic-intensive sport or activity three times a week. Swimming is the best from of aerobic exercise for senior people because it puts no impact-stress on the joints, unlike walking or running.
u Lightly train with resistance bands or weights two- three times a week.
u Drink lots of water before, during and after exercise.
u Allow yourself lots of rest between sets while training with weights.
u Warm up and cool down thoroughly. Older muscles need a longer warm-up period.
u Give yourself one-two days of complete rest in a week to aid recovery.