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Running right along

Vigorous exercise may prevent some of the aches and pains that come with age, a new study finds. But inactive seniors should start gradually.

October 10, 2005|Emily Singer | Special to The Times

SEVENTY-five-year-old Walter Bortz adds an unusual ritual to his physical every year: He runs a marathon. Younger runners might think the grueling race gets tougher as the years tick by, but Bortz says it's just the opposite.

"Training gets easier and recovery is faster," says Bortz, who has run a marathon every year for the last 35. While other runners were nursing sore muscles after finishing the Boston Marathon last April, Bortz took a shower, walked down to his favorite restaurant and ate a roast beef dinner.

Bortz says a combination of an active lifestyle and a structurally sound frame have kept him running this long. "I can't remember a time when pain has kept me from running."

Older people often shy away from vigorous physical activity for fear of injury, but new research shows that regular intense exercise can reduce the aches and pains of old age. The finding adds to a growing pile of evidence suggesting that exercise is a key component to aging gracefully.

"If you don't want to be frail, you've got to stay active," says Bortz, a physician at Stanford University in Palo Alto and past president of the American Geriatric Society. "Now we say inactivity is lethal."

Previous research has shown that exercise can reduce the pain of arthritis, as well as the progressive disability that can occur with aging, such as people's ability to feed and dress themselves.

The new study, published in Arthritis Research and Therapy in September, shows exercise can also cut musculoskeletal pain, such as a pulled hamstring.

Bonnie Bruce, a scientist at Stanford, followed more than 800 runners and inactive people in their 50s and 60s for 14 years. After analyzing results from an annual health questionnaire, she found that those who exercised vigorously -- defined as exercise that made people sweat and increased heart rate above 120 -- at least six hours per week experienced 25% less musculoskeletal pain than those who were inactive.

Researchers aren't sure how long people need to keep up their exercise routine to see the reduced pain effect -- people in the runners' group had been exercising regularly before the study. But the pain benefit seemed to stick as long as people stayed active through the end of the study, when participants had reached an age of 62 to 76 years.

"The findings add to an abundance of evidence that being active over the long term can benefit health," says Bruce.

Regular activity may reduce pain by strengthening tendons and ligaments and making joints healthier, says William Evans, director of the Nutrition, Metabolism and Exercise Laboratory at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.

"Lots of the changes that occur with age can be prevented with regular exercise," he says. Exercise also releases endorphins, the body's natural painkillers.

In addition, exercise can maintain bone density and increase the quality of muscle, as well as fight the loss of muscle mass that contributes to osteoporosis, says Evans.

Inactive people who want to start running should start gradually, says Bortz, who is also chairman of Fifty-plus Fitness, a nonprofit group in Palo Alto that promotes an active lifestyle in older people. "Start by jogging 10 steps and walking 15, then increase the next week."

Those who can't run should find another activity, such as swimming or an arm-driven bicycle, he says. "Movement is nature's way of immunizing against pain."

Bortz is still going strong and plans to sign up for next year's Boston Marathon. He hopes to encourage older runners by opening up more athletic opportunities. The doctor and his wife, Ruth, who in 2002 became the first couple older than 70 to finish the Boston Marathon, were instrumental in getting running times for that race changed for older runners.

Says Bortz, "As important as the fastest runner is the oldest runner."

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