As we age, it can be tough to maintain a regular exercise routine. We have other things going on in life, and not to mention any aches and pains that may have developed along the way! The truth is that exercise can improve the quality of life for anyone at any age, but may in fact be even more important as we get older.
In physical therapy, we have a common saying that we often find ourselves telling our patients: Exercise is Medicine. It sounds cliché, but it could not be more true. While you cannot prevent every injury, and can’t predict when a body part will start to hurt, there are many health factors you can control. And exercise is one of the most efficient and effective ways to do that. Here are a few of the many benefits that you can expect to gain from regular physical activity:
- Heart Disease
Exercise improves blood circulation, which is very important for preventing heart disease. Even moderate intensity physical activity has been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease and premature death. It is also highly effective for improving cholesterol and blood pressure! The American Heart Association1 reports that those who are physically active and at a healthy weight live about 7 years longer than those who are sedentary and obese.
- Weight Control
It’s true, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet, but you can certainly make your diet work better in your favor. Both aerobic and resistance exercise increase your overall caloric expenditure, which means what you eat will be less likely to be stored as fat. It’s not just the calories you burn while exercising, either: your body will be burning more calories throughout the day even while resting! Think of your body as a furnace, and calories will just be fuel for the fire, rather than sitting around and piling up waiting to get used.
- Diabetes Prevention and Management
General exercise is one of the first things we recommend for people with diabetes or pre-diabetes. To move, your muscles utilize sugar that is either stored in the body or free in the bloodstream. This means that not only does exercise has a direct positive impact on blood sugar immediately, but it can also improve insulin sensitivity, making it easier for your body to utilize sugar when it is already available. Of course, this does not replace any other medical management you may require for diabetes: always talk to your doctor about any lifestyle changes that can affect long term health conditions.
- Improved Mental Health and Function
Several studies show that exercise has a positive impact on mental function and acuity, regardless of your age. In one systematic review of the literature, researchers concluded that exercise even helps improve brain function and depression in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.2 When you exercise, your brain produces a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF.3 This protein enhances mental function, and improves anxiety and depression in mice, and is thought to do the same in humans. Along with the production of endorphans, this can leave you feeling much better when you have a regular exercise routine!
As we age, losing independence can be one of the most difficult things for a person and their family to go through. In clinical practice, this is one of the top priorities (if not THE top) for many patients in their older years. The number one thing I tell people to do to if this is something they’re worried about? You guessed it: Exercise.
According to the CDC4 show that even moderate intensity exercise at 150 minutes per week (that’s only 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week!) leads to significantly less chance of disease and early death. The healthier you are, the more you can do on your own. But not only that! Exercise is the only way to maintain your muscle mass and bone mineral density, which naturally decline as we age. If muscles get too weak, or bones too brittle, we are at significant risk of falls, injury, or hospitalization. Performing some regular aerobic and resistance training can keep you stronger, longer!
So: If you have a regular routine, keep it up! If not, the thought of starting one can be a daunting task. Talk to your physical therapist or physician about different options and they can help work with you to develop a plan. It doesn’t have to be much – 20-30 minutes of walking on most days of the week is enough to see significant benefits. Not only will it help you add years to your life, it will also help you add life to your years!
-Sean Jacobs, DPT, PT, CSCS
- American Heart Association: Physical Activity Improves Quality of Life (2015). http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/PhysicalActivity/FitnessBasics/Physical-activity-improves-quality-of-life_UCM_307977_Article.jsp#.W28yuuhKg2w
- Gremeaux, V., Gayda, M., Lepers, R., Sosner, P., Juneau, M., & Nigam, A. (2012). Exercise and longevity. Maturitas, 73(4), 312-317.
- Sleiman, S. F., Henry, J., Al-Haddad, R., El Hayek, L., Haidar, E. A., Stringer, T., … & Ninan, I. (2016). Exercise promotes the expression of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) through the action of the ketone body β-hydroxybutyrate. Elife, 5, e15092.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Physical Activity and Health (2018). https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm