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You’re Never Too Old For Regular Exercise

Some things should go without saying. But sometimes we need to say them anyway. Here are two: You can’t stop exercising as you grow older. And if you’re 50 or so, and you’ve never adopted a fitness regimen, you’d better start.

Both ideas seem so blindingly obvious, so utterly axiomatic for the self involved baby boom generations of which I am part, that I’m still not sure why anyone needs to be reminded. But the numbers tell a different story. According to the National Institute on Aging, only 25 percent of people age 65 to 74 engage in any kind of regular physical activity. For people 85 and older, it’s just 11 percent.

Does is seem unreasonable to ask an 85-year old to exercise regularly? It shouldn’t, because it isn’t. “At age 85, you want to continue enjoying life and not be limited by your physical abilities because your muscles aren’t strong and you’re having balance problems,” says Chhanda Dutta, chief of the clinical gerontology branch of the National Institute on Aging. “There’s so much more to life than simply being able to dress yourself.”

The NIA has launched a major campaign to help older Americans start, or continue, exercising despite the obstacles that aging inevitable throws at us. (And here I note that by “older” the agency means people over 50, which includes me. Not sure how I feel about that.) Whether you have a heart condition, you think you’re too busy, you’ve spent a lifetime on the couch eating curly fries, you find exercise to be drudgery, or you’re afraid you might hurt yourself working out, the Go4Life campaign is not taking no for an answer.

“I think that a lot of people may not know where to begin,” Dutta says. “And the other thing is we all lead busy lives, and what we are doing with this campaign is trying to show people that there are ways they can incorporate exercise and physical activity into their busy lives.” What it all boils down to is pushing past the perceived obstacles to fitness. The primary one, according to Tom Prohaska, a professor of public health and aging at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is that many older adults “don’t think they are capable of exercising or exercising safely” because of health conditions.

Actually, he said, studies show that fully 95 percent of older adults, including those with arthritis, hypertension, and heart disease, can safely work out when shown how. Older people also are convinced that exercise won’t benefit them. “Some people don’t realize… that the things they attribute to normal aging are really because they aren’t physically fit,” says Prohaska, who helped develop the Go4Life program. There are programs for just about everyone – for the homebound, for the chair bound, for people who need to get restarted after a health setback.

Various groups are trying to solve one of the most difficult problems – providing lower-income elderly people ways to work out in unsafe neighborhoods. Another approach is to incorporate movement and physical activity into daily life, instead of making it a chore that must be done each day. Connecting with a workout buddy – for seniors this is often a walking partner – makes it all much easier.

For the record: You need to exercise for the rest of your life, not just to maintain cardiovascular fitness, but to keep up your strength, balance and flexibility. If you do, you’ll help prevent heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. You may maintain mental agility longer. You’ll have more energy. Your mood may brighten. You could meet other like-minded people. Or, like most people over 65, you can ignore this advice. It’s up to you.

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Regular Exercise Boost Brain Health

Scientists know that a healthy diet and regular exercise are vital to maximize brain functioning. Regular aerobic exercise has been show to improve reaction time, speed of processing information, memory and attention. Aerobic exercise has even been shown to reduce the symptoms of depression and stress.

Recommended levels of physical activity include at minimum three weekly sessions of 20 minutes or more of aerobic activity that is intense enough to elevate the heart rate, and two to three days weekly of anaerobic activity (resistance training). Exactly how exercise benefits the brain is still a mystery, but it likely that there are multiple factors at work, For instance, until relatively recently, neuroscientists believed that adults never produced new brain cells, or neurons, the basic building blocks of the nervous system. It was thought that we were born with a set number of neurons that could not increase, and with age these neurons and other brain cells died off.


We now know that not only is the brain capable of creating new neurons, but there is evidence indicating that regular exercise stimulates this regeneration. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers of the brain. Unfortunately, the number we produce declines as we age. However, studies show that exercise appears to increase the production of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine.

These so-called “feel good” chemicals can have positive effects on thinking and mood, and the proper balance of these chemicals is crucial to maintaining a healthy brain. Another plus is the beneficial effect exercise can have on circulation. Proper blood flow is vital to both cellular waste removal and delivery of essential nutrients responsible for proper brain function, such as oxygen and glucose (blood sugar).

Diet and exercise have so many benefits including weight loss, respiratory improvement and stress relief. It only takes about 30 minutes a day of any cardio activity such as walking or jogging to get the heart rate pumping and circulation of blood flow. A balanced meal and regular exercise will stimulate the brain cells and you will be more alert and focused throughout the day.

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Margie Gilliam
Cox Newspapers

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