To live to a biblical old age, stay physically active, someone once said, not that I have any desire to live to the age of 100 or more, though we do hear about those who manage to do just that.
I began exercising regularly after the birth of my firstborn and went on to run marathons for a number of years. Years later, after suffering with a herniated disk, my doctor advised me to give up running altogether. I didn’t stop right away but eventually followed his advice. I turned to walking for many years, but now, I’m in the gym regularly using weight and aerobic machines as well as an elliptical machine at home.
Over the years, I’ve observed many elite athletes who retire and become obese within a few years. No matter how fit we are while playing sports or working, as we age, it’s the most recent physical activity that counts. The bottom line is that it’s important to maintain regular physical exercise throughout life.
A recent Tufts University health newsletter reported that most people don’t follow through with plans to become more active in retirement. Most assume they will have more time to exercise. But according to a new British study, that isn’t what happens. Among 3,334 men and women followed over a 10-year period, those who retired during the study period showed significant declines in physical activity compared to their working years. The study found that the more sedentary retirees lost the health benefits of physical activity and gained weight as well.
Any physical activity is better than not exercising at all, and you don’t have to spend hours in a gym. You can accumulate physical activity in many ways by dancing, walking, sports, gardening, video exercise tapes (there are so many from which to choose), swimming, biking or hiking. The list could go on and on.
Whatever your situation, the first step is to get moving. One person put it this way: “Just think about the activity that you detest the least, then do it.”
An Israeli study, some years ago, reported that people over age 70 live longer and better if they’re physically active at least four hours a week. The physically active seniors were 31 percent less likely to die during the length of the study compared to 58 percent for their sedentary peers. A full 92 percent of the physically active seniors were more likely to remain independent while performing the activities of daily living compared to 72 percent for the sedentary seniors.
According to the same report, there are few studies about the benefits of exercise among the very old, so the Jerusalem Longitudinal Cohort study followed 1,821 participants for 18 years from ages 70 to 88. The study classified participants as active or sedentary based on self-reported physical activity, which included walking regularly as well as vigorous exercise. Sedentary was defined as activity less than fours a week.
Results showed that between the ages of 70 and 78, 27.2 percent of the sedentary groups died compared to 15.2 percent of the active group. In the 78-year-old age group through age 85 group, 40.8 percent of sedentary study participants died compared to 26.1 percent of the active ones.
All studies showed that active participants benefited and increased their odds of survival with advancing age over the sedentary. Even those who began an exercise program as late as 78 and 85 years old improved their odds of survival. It’s never too late to begin an exercise program, the study concluded.
Another study from New Zealand reported basically the same results. Over a nine-year period, only 6 percent of the fittest group died during the study period. After adjusting for obesity, hypertension and diabetes, fitness was the strongest predictor of mortality.
Another bonus for keeping our bodies fit is that it helps to keep our brains fit as well. One report concluded, “six months of moderate levels of exercise are sufficient to produce significant improvements in cognitive function.” The British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that not only does exercise improve mental performance, but also seems to actually affect the makeup of the brain.
Mayrene Bates is a trustee on the Solano County Board of Education. Reach her by email at [email protected]