Baby Boomers are defined as those born between the years of 1946 and 1964. That means during 2014, the youngest of this generation – a generation 78 million strong that’s redefining aging as we know it – will be crossing into 50-something territory.
Those approaching this milestone, according to a variety of medical experts, can expect to notice losses in strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance, all factors that can stifle an otherwise healthy lifestyle – if you let it, of course.
So what’s the magic remedy for aging? According to Alice Bell, a physical therapist and member of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the answer can be as simple as staying active.
“Sitting is a risk factor for all causes of mortality,” she said. “People who don’t move are at a higher risk of nearly everything. It’s important to engage in meaningful activity.”
Dr. Ronan Factora, a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Geriatric Medicine, agrees. According to Factora, the benefits of exercise for those approaching their golden years – the physical as well as the mental – far exceed the capabilities of most medical treatments and interventions.
“There is not a single pill that is going to provide as many benefits,” he said.
Such benefits relate to a long list of conditions and diseases common with aging, from improved mental health (e.g., happier, improved memory, a reduced risk of dementia) to the reduced risk of chronic illnesses and disease (e.g., diabetes, heart disease, stroke).
Not to be overlooked, the simple ability to function day to day – to walk, bike, golf, garden, get up and down the stairs, and generally live independently – is vastly improved when one exercises regularly. According to Abby King, PhD, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, independence is a priority that grows in importance as aging becomes more evident.
“When you ask seniors what they are most afraid of, they don’t put cancer or other specific, age-related diseases at the top of the list,” King said. “They say loss of independence.”
King was part of a recent study that showed a direct correlation between exercise and a senior’s level of balance, walking speed and the ability to rise from a chair. Jack Guralnik, M.D., PhD, was co-leader of the study from the National Institute of Aging.
“We are encouraged by these results, which demonstrate that a well-designed program combining aerobic, strength, balance, and flexibility exercises can make a difference for those who are at high risk of losing mobility function,” Guralnik said.
Bell agrees that to maintain functional abilities after 50, adults should focus their exercises on the four key areas: strengthening, aerobics, balance, and flexibility. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers a few guidelines:
Strengthening: According to the CDC, older adults should do exercises that work all of their major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, shoulders, chest and arms) at least two times each week. Activities can include lifting weights, working with resistance bands, doing exercises that use your body weight for resistance (e.g., push-ups and sit-ups), heavy gardening and yoga.
Aerobics: Older adults should commit at least 2 hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) each week to moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. Brisk walking, pushing a lawn mower, biking to the store, taking a dance class – they all count so long as the activities force you to breathe harder and make your heart beat faster. And there’s no need to do it all at once. According to the CDC, as little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise counts as a workout.
Balance: Balance training at least three times each week will vastly reduce a senior’s risk of falling, according to the CDC. Examples of beneficial balance exercises include walking backwards, walking sideways, heel walking, toe walking and practicing standing from a sitting position. It’s also been shown that Tai chi, a slow, movement-based form of martial arts popular among seniors, may also help with balance.
Flexibility: Better flexibility, according to the National Institutes of Health, “gives you more freedom of movement for your physical activities and for everyday activities such as getting dressed and reaching for objects on a shelf.” Stretch every day, ideally following a regular strength or aerobics workout. Breathe normally, don’t bounce, and stop each stretch before the point where discomfort becomes pain.
Several medical studies through the years indicate that the benefits of strength, aerobic, balance, and flexibility exercises can be realized even if you’ve waited until later in life – your retirement years, for instance – to focus on improving your health.
“It’s never too late to start exercising,” said Bill Kohn, a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas at Austin. “We’ve learned even the oldest of the old can increase their muscle mass, even at 90. There are few things that physical activity doesn’t help in terms of health.”
But as always, before starting any new workout routine, check with your doctor. Also, a physical therapist is always a good companion to have by your side when starting a new exercise regimen. He or she can work with you to create a routine catered to your specific goals and functional limitations.
Move Forward: Fit After 50
Huffington Post – Post 50: The Four Keys to Starting an Exercise Regimen after 50
Health Hub with Cleveland Clinic: Exercise Do’s and Don’ts Beyond Age 50
Chicago Tribune: Taking Time Out for Exercise Pays in Spades
Medical News Today: Value of Exercise for Seniors Shown in Multi-Center Study with Stanford
CDC: Making Physical Activity a Part of an Older Adult’s Life
Mayo Clinic: Seven Benefits of Regular Exercise