Dr. Richard N. Waldman
By 2030, the number of Americans age 65 and older is expected to double from 35 million to 70 million. And as the ranks of older Americans expand, so will the occurrence of chronic disease among this population.
Increasing age is considered a main risk factor in the development and progression of most chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer. Many seniors first turn to medications to combat these problems, often overlooking an inexpensive and powerful technique to reduce and even prevent disease: Exercise.
In addition to the benefits that regular exercise holds for everyone — such as increased energy, improved mood, strength, and muscle tone, and reduced body fat and body mass index — older adults have even more to gain.
Physical inactivity is a culprit in much of the loss of strength, stamina, and flexibility that many assume is a side effect of aging. Declines in aerobic capacity and muscle strength can increase the risk of falls and injuries, such as hip fractures, and can severely limit one’s ability to perform everyday tasks and maintain independence.
Exercise combats this progression. It can help improve balance, circulation, and cardiovascular function, lowers blood pressure, and wards off weight gain. It can improve quality of life and self-esteem and reduce the risk of memory problems and dementia in older adults. Regular physical activity may also help increase life expectancy by delaying the onset or progression of chronic diseases.
All adults should aim for at least two hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. If you are unable to do that amount of activity, do as much as you can.
If the idea of getting active is less than exciting, remember that being fit is not about running a marathon or even joining a gym. In fact, it’s probably much easier than you think. For example, walking is a great way to build cardio-vascular endurance and muscle tone.
Talk to your doctor before beginning your exercise plan. He or she can help you tailor your routine to suit your ability level and include the things that you enjoy. No matter what the activity— golfing, swimming, gardening or doing yard work, dancing, biking, house cleaning— the important thing is that you keep doing it. A good pair of athletic shoes, supportive under-garments, such as a sports bra, and loose-fitting clothes may help you feel more comfortable and enjoy your exercise routine more.
While genetics and lifestyle factors affect how an individual will respond to an exercise program, most adults who get physical will reap some rewards. To maintain independence, it’s vital to stay strong and active and it’s never too late to start.
Dr. Richard N. Waldman is president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.