Advances in medicine and technology mean human beings are living longer than ever before. But are we aging well? And, can we cheat the negative effects of aging on health? The answer may lie in the positive effects of exercise.
If we are living longer, it is a given that we should be living healthier to achieve the best quality of life throughout our years. "New research shows that exercise can help us achieve this," says Mari Leach, biokineticist at Discovery Vitality. "In fact, several recent studies show that regular exercise can result in better health outcomes as we age."
Science proves the benefits of life-long exercise
Researchers from Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine recently published a study which found that when older people spent one hour a week doing moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise, they had fewer aches and pains. This means that a brisk walk for just 10 min a day can have a positive effect on joint pain and mobility impairment.
"For nearly 20 years, the researchers examined adults aged 49 to 83, who had osteoarthritis of the knee, meaning they were expected to be at risk of mobility impairment," says Leach. The participants had previously experienced pain in their hip, knee, ankle or foot and were at increased risk of disability due to their symptoms, which included aching or stiffness. The study showed that despite their disadvantage linked to the existing condition, those who exercised regularly experienced both less pain and decreased difficulty in performing everyday tasks.
Leach adds, "What really speaks to quality of life is that, for older adults, physical activity can mean better mobility for longer, and lessen the risk of injuries through falls. That means extended independence, which is something we all desire into old age."
Lead author Dorothy Dunlop says in a US report that, "Identifying an evidence-based physical activity goal which supports these basic abilities (of mobility), may motivate inactive older adults to begin their path towards health benefits from a physically active lifestyle." It may not always be easy to commit to regular or daily exercise, but even incorporating short periods of 'natural' physical movement, like walking as much as possible in carrying out daily activities and doing household chores such as washing up the dishes or gardening, can be beneficial.
A large study of 122 007 patients which considered the effect of cardiorespiratory fitness on the length of life over a decade, showed that people who exercised had a lower risk of dying - from any illness. And the more they exercised, the lower their risk of dying was. "Those individuals who engaged in extremely high levels of cardiorespiratory fitness showed the greatest prospect of survival, especially in older adults and in individuals with hypertension. It is also associated with numerous cardiovascular and noncardiovascular benefits, including reductions in coronary artery disease (CAD), hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and cancer.
"It's so encouraging that the study, which spanned an impressive 23 years, advised that healthcare professionals should encourage patients to achieve and maintain their fitness as they age - something I am entirely passionate about. There is no disputing that regular physical activity is key to health at every age and especially in our later years," adds Leach.
You have power over your genes
Can exercise lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, even if you have a family history or genetic profile that puts you at risk?
The research shows that exercise could be effective in silencing even those genes that put us at higher risk of heart disease. A study published in the journal Circulation, showed strength-training and cardiorespiratory fitness (in this case, achieved by regularly using a stationary bike) lowered the risk of heart disease - whether people were categorised with low, intermediate or high genetic risk of heart disease.
"Genes don't have to determine destiny," says Dr. Erik Ingelsson, in an article published by the American Heart Association. The lead study author and professor of medicine at Stanford University, added, "You can impact your risk (and lower it) by being more fit." In fact, the study showed that the fittest of the heart disease-prone study participants were more than twice as likely to be alive 10 years later, compared with the least fit.
Science proves you can start exercising at any age - no excuses
It is never too late to start being physically active. "Fitness-related studies show that even people who don't start working out until middle age, may see similar longevity benefits to those who have exercised in their younger days," says Leach. A study by the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland showed that, compared to people who were inactive throughout their lives, people who reported consistently high levels of exercise from youth through middle age, were 36% less likely to die of any cause during the study period. But inactive people, who got moving later, between the ages of 40 and 61, experienced similar benefits. And, when previously inactive people started exercising in middle age, they were 35% less likely to die of all causes during the study, than if they remained inactive.
Study leader Pedro Saint-Maurice says, "These findings suggest that if you're active in early adulthood, stay active. Don't stop. [But] if you're in your 40-60s and you have not been active for a long time, it's not too late to start exercising now." Leach could not agree more: "I always emphasise that it's never too late to start working out - and reaping the benefits."
Health is the ultimate wealth
"The fact that fitter people experience fewer aches and pains as they age is reason enough to feel happy about the future," says Leach. "But staying fit also helps to lift your mood - and in fact, could make you happier than other extrinsic factors - like acquiring money - would."
In a joint study, published in The Lancet, researchers from Yale and Oxford universities concluded that any exercise, from mowing the lawn to weight-lifting, makes people happier. Assessing the income, physical behaviour and mental mood of more than 1.2 million Americans, researchers found that people who stayed active tended to be happier than those who did not exercise, even when the latter earned about R400 000 more, per year.
"It's not surprising that, for many, the physical and mental benefits of life-long exercise, could outweigh their economic status," explains Leach. "Health is the ultimate wealth. And in a world in which we are living longer, having to re-assess our economic needs and ability to provide for ourselves and loved ones for many more years than our predecessors, health and independence are key to the ability to be economically productive for longer. Ultimately, healthier people also have higher earning potential, as they are mentally and physically fitter and so able to work longer."
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