Many people assume that getting fatter, weaker and stiffer are all inevitable with age. But a growing body of research suggests that much of the decline attributed to aging actually comes from being sedentary, and that regular exercise can help people remain healthy and independent as they get older.
One of the most intriguing findings to document the "anti-aging" effect of physical activity comes from the Adult Exercise Research Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where exercise physiologist Lawrence Golding has collected data on nearly 1,000 adults who have taken the exercise class he's taught there since 1976. Currently, 66 men and 31 women, ranging in age from about 30 to 70, take the one-hour class, which the 72-year-old professor teaches five days a week.
Many of the participants have been attending for years, typically exercising about three days a week. When 18 men celebrated their 20th anniversary with the class last year, Golding marked the occasion by comparing their fitness levels with that of the "normal" nonexercising population.
"The dramatic age drop [in physical capability] that occurs in the normal population isn't present with the regular exercisers," he says. "The data show a powerful trend that exercise maintains physiological function."
In body composition tests, for example, the 20-year exercisers had an average body fat of about 20%, compared with the nonexercising population norm of 26%. Over time, the exercisers did show slight age-related declines in strength and aerobic capacity, but they were still "way far ahead of the average population," Golding says. "Even those who stayed the same came out ahead when you compare them to nonexercisers who experienced a sharp decline."
The exercisers made the greatest improvements in the first three years or so, then reached a maintenance level. In general, the more people came to class, the greater their improvements. But even people who attended just once or twice a week showed some benefits. And regardless of their age, all participants showed improvements in all the areas studied.
Surprisingly, flexibility was the one variable that showed no age-related decline. "The stiffness many people associate with age actually comes from disuse," Golding says.
These findings support research published this spring in the New England Journal of Medicine, which concluded that people with good health habits--thin nonsmokers who exercised at least two hours a week--remain free of even minor disabilities for up to seven years longer than those with poor health habits.
The study of 1,741 University of Pennsylvania alumni found that middle-aged people who watch their weight, exercise and don't smoke not only live longer, but have fewer years of sickness and dependence on others when they get old.
Any good program of regular aerobic activity and strength training will help people stay healthy and independent with age, says UNLV's Golding, who is co-author of the National YMCA Physical Fitness Program. "People tend to think you've got some secret exercise," he says. "But the only secret is just doing it on a regular basis."
Golding likens his workout to "the damn Daily Dozen [calisthenics] in the Marine Corps . . . with no music, just yelling." His program consists of:
* Warmup: About five to 10 minutes of easy movements and stretches such as arm circles, trunk twists and side bends that take joints through their full range of motion.
* Muscular strength and endurance exercises: 10 to 15 minutes of calisthenics, including abdominal crunches, push-ups and modified chin-ups.
* Bench-stepping: Participants step up and down on a specially constructed 16-inch-high bench for about six minutes. Beginners start with two sets of 10 steps and slowly work their way up to 200 steps. (People with knee problems use a 12-inch step.)
* Aerobic activity: Women walk or run around an indoor track for 15 to 20 minutes; men swim for that same amount of time. (The activities differ only because the pool isn't available during the women's class time.) Exercisers are encouraged to work at a pace they consider "moderately hard" to "somewhat hard"--a training heart rate range of 60% to 80% of their maximum heart rate.
* Cool down: Five to 10 minutes of easy movements and stretches to return the body to its resting levels.
Start any new exercise program slowly and progress gradually, cautions Golding. "People spend 20 years getting out of shape, then expect to get back in shape in 20 days," he notes. "You need to push yourself a little bit so your body will adapt and improve, but it's important to stress your system without straining it."
Golding himself is an excellent advertisement for the anti-aging benefits of exercise. At a stage of life when many people are retired, he is a professor of kinesiology and director of UNLV's Exercise Physiology Laboratory, and editor in chief of the American College of Sports Medicine's new Health and Fitness Journal.
Because he frequently travels, Golding has developed a seven-minute hotel room workout consisting of 100 abdominal crunches, two sets of 20 push-ups and 100 steps up and down on a chair (pushed against the wall for safety). "This gives me enough exercise," he says, "so that I can keep up with my class when I get back."
Fitness runs Monday in Health.