FITNESS AFTER FIFTY
Charles J. Bixby, M.A. Ed., M.S.
Quality of Life! When we are young, we expect it, even take it for granted. Yet, as we age we find it elusive. Quality of life, as we age, is not a given, quite the contrary-it must be earned. And, in this opinion, the best way to assure quality in our second half century of life is to be fit enough to enjoy it. Though we may not be able to turn back the hands of time, we can sure give it a run for the money-sensibly. And just what is this "breakthrough," the secret to long years of fun filled activity, not merely reserved for the young, but also for the young at heart to be experienced far into the twilight years? The answer, more recognized now than ever, is safe, structured exercise-performed for one reason, the most important reason-to improve functional ability.
Exercise, it seems, is on everyone's mind these days and with good reason. Consider what happens to strength and body composition with the aging process. As sedentary individuals become older they will lose 10 to 12 percent of their muscle mass, 20 percent of their muscular strength, and 20 percent and 30 percent of their cortical bone thickness for males and females, respectively. The loss of muscle mass will account in part for a decline in the basal metabolic rate and body fat will increase. The loss of muscle and increase of body fat can occur with no appreciable change in absolute body weight. The accumulation of body fat and the loss of muscle can be a pretty sneaky process with the scale reflecting a number that can make us feel comfortable but that is deceptive. Still the act of regular exercise is "avoided like the plague" by many. To the 22 percent of the American population that exercises regularly, including young and old, exercise and the potential benefits it stimulates is becoming more and more something to be reckoned with, to be taken seriously! The search for the Holy Grail may actually be attainable-but it will come with a price. For when the truth is revealed, when we learn to differentiate exercise from recreation, we will only then recognize that "meaningful exercise"-that stimulates results in functional ability-improved strength, flexibility, and cardio-respiratory conditioning is actually the means to the end. This "work" is necessary to take us to those quality later years in life-enjoyed free of the aches, pains, stiffness, and lack of mobility much too often suffered in later life. It's as simple as understanding the following undeniable points.
1. Our muscles, feared by some and misunderstood by most of us, are not there merely to look at. Strong muscles move the body and support the skeleton. The stronger our muscles, the better we move. Sensible exercise programs place a real emphasis on building strength. Building strength via a circuit type progressive weight training routine can be of tremendous importance to anyone of any age. Too long neglected by the medical community in favor of purely aerobic exercise, recent research validates the health benefits of strength training. Many of the strength training benefits may not be attainable through aerobic exercise alone. What does this all mean to you? Basically weight training can slow age related muscle loss, slow age related strength loss, prevent the yearly loss in metabolic rate, help to reduce body fat, improve or maintain bone density, reduce the risk of osteoporosis, reduce the risk of all causes of osteoporotic fracture, reduce risk of heart disease, reduce risk of back pain, reduce risk of diabetes, and help to diminish the pain of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. What is amazing is that all of these benefits can be realized in as little as one and a half hours per week.
2. Enhanced flexibility will ensure greater range of movement in the post fifty- something enthusiasts whose lifestyle includes reaching and bending, jumping and lifting-actively pursuing life to its fullest. Conventional stretching exercises performed in control (not ballistic or bouncing) will increase flexibility safely within an individual's potential (we are not all born equal as regards to physical function). Efficient stretching can also be performed on properly built strength building machines, which comprise the circuit training routine mentioned above. Such equipment works a muscle through its full range of motion ensuring greater flexibility by strengthening the working muscle from a position of stretch throughout the movement to full muscular contraction.
3. By now we all know the word "aerobics," which in some circles has become a generic term for exercise-any and all exercise. The intended benefits of aerobic exercise practiced on a 3 times per week basis is improved heart-lung efficiency, allowing one to perform endurance activities of daily living more easily and with less fatigue. Also, regular aerobic exercise can reduce the impact of risk factors associated with coronary heart disease. Obviously, the potential benefits aerobic exercise presents are enormous. Though aerobic exercise does not guarantee us all increased life expectancy, the physiological benefits are real and the supportive data of a scientific nature is accepted. Still, aerobics, for all its benefits, has its limitations. Aerobics will not adequately strengthen the muscles around your joints, enhancing joint stabilization. Nor will aerobics substantially strengthen your body! Surprised? This was never the intended function of aerobic exercise. Great increases in aerobic endurance via improved heart-lung efficiency, YES! A stronger body, NO!!!
The solution is quite obviously a combination of the two types of exercise- aerobic (heart-lung) and anaerobic (muscle and bone). And a combination of the two, practiced sensibly, under supervision, no more than three times per week will yield an extra benefit strengthening your muscles yields a higher basal metabolism. You can actually burn more calories even when you are not working out!
If you decide after reading this article that maybe a structured exercise program is for you, then you are taking an appropriate step in enriching your later years leading to a more productive, active lifestyle.
Make no mistake; what we are discussing is serious business, not "fun" fitness. If fun is what you are looking for, enjoying your favorite sport or activity long into your life, that is your reward and you will have earned it! However, it is your commitment to your workouts that gets you strong and allows you to enjoy life.
Ask your family doctor how you can gradually become involved in a meaningful strength and conditioning program. And if he or she does not know, find a physician who does. It's important and it is your life!