With aging, muscle strength declines and reflexes slow down. Reduced activity and loss of muscle can lead to weight gain as we grow older. These changes can shift the body’s centre of gravity. If the reflexes to keep the body upright are slower than in the past and strength is reduced, it becomes easier to lose balance and fall.
Inactivity speeds up these changes and the problems become more serious. Regular exercise helps to keep the muscles toned, the weight down and the reflex responses brisk. Since exercise helps reduce falls and maintain overall fitness, it contributes to longer, healthy, independent living.
Physical fitness lowers cholesterol levels and improves metabolism of sugars. It also reduces abdominal fat - an important risk factor for developing high blood pressure, heart attacks and stroke. These are all deadly illnesses more common with aging. Eighty per cent of the cases of heart disease occur in the elderly.
Regular exercise, even when started in later life, can prevent these problems. Research into exercise has shown that 20 minutes of aerobic activity three times a week is enough to improve cardiovascular fitness. Vigorous exercise like running, singles tennis and step aerobics can be replaced by more moderate activities like walking and cycling with health benfits and without making arthritic joints more painful.
Exercise, such as walking, is now routinely prescribed for people to reduce the severity of osteoporosis because it helps maintain the minerals in bones. If started earlier in life, exercise helps prevent osteoporosis.
Unfortunately, physical fitness disappears more quickly than it develops. We have all gone to bed for a day or two with the flu and found our energy and strength low for several days after the fever and chills have vanished. One day of bed rest results in the same amount of the deconditioning that occurs with one whole year of a sedentary lifestyle.
The bed rest is as responsible for that weakened state as the infection. With bed rest, muscle strength is lost at a rate of one to five per cent each day. Leg strength is lost twice as quickly as in other areas and this can seriously limit mobility.
With minor illnesses, getting back to usual activities as soon as possible is enough to ensure a full recovery. For prolonged illness or after a stay in hospital, speedy recovery often depends on an exercise program supervised by physiotherapists. Often a geriatrician (a doctor who specializes in care of the elderly) will plan the program based on a person’s special needs. Special attention to diet is needed to ensure enough protein and calories are consumed to promote healing.
The goals of an exercise program are to improve heart, lung and muscle function so a person can get back to independent living as quickly as possible. It does not happen overnight. Regaining what has been lost takes time, about three times longer than in a younger person. Thus an illness that takes a young person a week for recovery will take an older individual three weeks before energy levels are back to where they used to be. Although this can be discouraging, with effort you will succeed.
The best way to avoid the complications of inactivity is to keep active in the first place. There are a few simple things you can do to reduce your risk of these problems.
An active lifestyle is a strong defence against illness and frailty. It is never too late for healthy choices. All it takes is a decision to start and a commitment to continue. The rewards of a healthier, independent life are yours for the taking.