Growing older is no picnic...but a regular fitness routine can jumpstart your memory, your metabolism, and your state of mind.

Growing old gracefully...is there really such a thing? With all the advances in medical technology, people are living longer and pursuing a better quality of life. According to the US Census Bureau, the 85+ plus age group will soon be the fastest growing segment of our population.

With a multi-million dollar vitamin supplement industry and booming sales of Viagra and alpha-hydroxy wrinkle creams, Americans are fighting back against the inevitability of aging. Ironically, one of the most powerful and inexpensive anti-aging mechanisms is largely ignored—exercise.

When Elders Don't Exercise

A National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) shows that greater than half of all adult Americans don't meet even the minimum recommendations for physical activity, with inactivity the most evident in people over the age of 60. And the effects of a sedentary lifestyle are far-reaching.

"Exercise contributes to the physical and psychological well-being that defines healthy aging," says Robert Mazzeo, PhD, of the American College of Sports Medicine.

The aging process brings a natural decline in strength, caused by sarcopenia, or loss of muscle tissue. Sarcopenia promotes frailty and the impaired ability to move about with ease, which is often associated with aging. Decreased strength means less energy to perform everyday activities such as household chores, grocery shopping, and climbing stairs.

An inactive lifestyle further aggravates the aging process by increasing the risk of developing obesity and a host of diseases, including high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes mellitus, certain types of cancer, and coronary artery disease.

Extra! Extra! Exercise Can Help Reverse the Effects of Aging!

Now for the good news.

Regular, moderate physical activity has been shown to lower the risk of or improve the symptoms of many chronic diseases. Exercise helps build muscle and bone strength and improves balance and flexibility—all of which can protect your body from falls that can cause debilitating fractures. Exercise may also boost the immune system to help fight off colds and flu, control arthritic symptoms such as joint swelling and pain, improve mood and self-confidence, and enhance a deeper sleep.

In a study of postmenopausal women at the Tufts University Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston, Miriam Nelson, PhD, found that the women who participated in a strength-training program for one year reversed some aspects of aging by 15 to 20 years. The women increased their strength and bone mass, and benefited from a trimmer body, which was a result of well-toned muscles. One of the study's most interesting side effects was that the women became more active overall, with more energy and self-confidence to try out new activities such as dancing, bicycling, and even rollerblading!

It's Never Too Late to Start

Even the most frail elderly people benefit from exercise. Maria Fiatarone, MD, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, placed 100 nursing home residents ranging in age from 72 to 98 years old on a 10-week strength-training regimen. Most of the residents in the study depended on canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. By the end of the program, not only did they increase their muscle size and strength, but they also moved about with greater ease, even improving their ability to climb stairs—all of which greatly boosted their morale.

Getting Help for Getting Started

Anyone, at any age and with almost any condition (with some exceptions), can be physically active to some degree. Before starting an exercise program, first talk with your physician. This is especially important if you're age 40 to 50 or older, have a chronic disease, and/or are taking medications, are overweight, or haven't exercised regularly in the past few years.

Your doctor may have suggestions for an exercise regimen tailored to your particular needs, or may be able to refer you to a reputable physical therapist or certified fitness trainer. If not, look in the Yellow Pages or inquire at a local gym for a fitness professional certified by a nationally recognized organization such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the American Council on Exercise (ACE), or the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). The ACSM recommends an exercise stress test for age 40 to 50 before starting a vigorous program, but scientific data are not conclusive for other age groups. It's worth investing in a few sessions with a personal trainer—either working with you at home or at a fitness center—to learn more about various exercises and learn the proper techniques.

Variety Is the Spice of Life

  • Warm Up —First, always warm up for at least five minutes. Light activity, such as walking while gently swinging your arms, circulates blood to warm up your muscles. Jumping too quickly into vigorous exercise can shock and injure the muscles.
  • Aerobic Exercise —Include aerobic, or endurance activities, such as walking, jogging , bicycling, and dancing most days of the week. These strengthen your heart and lungs by increasing your heart rate and breathing, and improve the circulation of blood and oxygen throughout the body. Walking is one of the easiest and most convenient aerobic activities, whether in a park or neighborhood away from traffic, in an uncrowded mall on a weekday morning, or on a treadmill in the privacy of your home.
    If you are just beginning to exercise, start with five minutes daily, adding a few minutes each week to reach your desired goal. Daily activities count: walking a few blocks instead of riding the bus or driving, or skipping the elevator and using stairs if only traveling a few flights.
  • Strength Training —Strength training with hand and ankle weights or resistance bands or Nautilus equipment is vital for maintaining muscle and bone strength. Bowling, hiking, tennis, and mowing the lawn (with a push mower!) are other strength-building activities. Because muscles need a day or two to rest and repair, include these activities only two to three times weekly.
  • Stretching —Flexibility declines with age but can be regained with consistent stretching exercises. Stretching alleviates joint stiffness, reduces stress, and may prevent falls. Yoga is an excellent activity that incorporates various stretching and balancing poses to keep the body limber. Contact your local YMCA or Council on Aging to find inexpensive yoga classes designed for older adults.
  • Tai Chi —Numerous studies show benefits, including reduced falls.
  • Cool Down —Finally, slow your pace for a cool-down period of at least five to 10 minutes to gradually bring your heart rate back to normal.

In Addition to Exercise, Here Is a Vitamin Worth Taking

Many older people don’t get enough sunshine, which can lead to vitamin D deficiency. Recent studies tell us that, for reasons that aren’t clear, vitamin D supplements can improve balance and help prevent falls. This effect may be related to improved musculoskeletal function. Typical dose is 400–800 IU daily.

Remember that growing older is inevitable—feeling old is not. Keeping active at any age reaps everlasting rewards that will allow you to enjoy life to its fullest.