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Everybody grows older and it is normal to experience biological changes along the way. However, deteriorating health is not necessarily a part of the process. Not if you can help it and make an effort to stay healthy even as you advance in age.
Research has shown that active lifestyles can help mitigate the challenges that happen with increasing age. This involves keeping up your physical and mental fitness in terms of strength, endurance, balance, and agility. Regular physical activity is, it goes without saying, one of the most important measures you can take to maintain your good health and well-being.
What is active aging and why is it important?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the term ‘active aging’ as the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation, and security to enhance the life of people as they age. The term encompasses a host of areas that include being physically active as well as participation in social, economic, cultural, spiritual, and civic affairs.
Active aging is important for a lot of reasons, perhaps the most essential of all is that it aims not just to extend life expectancy but also to improve the quality of life of all people as they age. This includes those who are frail, living with a disability, or who need care.
Helpful tips for healthy aging
A lot of factors play a role in healthy aging, some of which are beyond our control such as genetics. However, there are other actions that you can take to mitigate the challenges that come with aging:
- Increase your level of physical activity – the guidelines for exercise and physical activity for older adults recommend being active most days of the week.
- Eat a healthier diet appropriate to your age – it’s smart to eat a variety of foods to make sure you get all the nutrients you need like lean protein sources, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. Pick foods that are low in sodium and high in fiber.
- Pay your doctor a regular visit – annual or semi-annual health screenings can catch diseases early as well as reduce the risk factors for high blood pressure and other diseases.
- Take special care of your mental health -- managing the issues of loneliness, depression, social isolation, stress, and mood is crucial for maintaining a good quality of life.
- Spend more time outdoors – studies show that exposure to greenspace can be beneficial for both physical and mental health.
- Socialize and interact with others – social interaction has potential benefits for preventing dementia and a host of other health problems including mental health issues.
- If you’re a smoker, quit now – it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a smoker. Quitting now can still bring improvements to your health such as improving your blood circulation; enhancing your sense of taste and smell; lowering your risk of heart disease, cancer, and lung disease; and very importantly, helping boost your ability to be active.
- Put a limit on drinking – The physical and social changes that accompany the aging process may make you more susceptible to alcohol abuse. This also applies to dependence on other substances such as opioid medications.
- Get enough sound sleep – sleep quality can affect your memory and mood as well as overall health. A study even suggests that people in their 50s and 60s who don’t get enough quality sleep may be at greater risk of developing dementia later in life. It helps to keep a regular sleep schedule. Monitor your medicine intake as some medications may keep you awake at night. Avoid napping during the daytime if it keeps you up at night.
Effects of lack of physical activity on older adults
Over half of the signs of aging-related physical decline may be attributed to a lack of exercise. People 50 years and above may experience the following common health problems caused by the lack of physical activity among the elderly and older adults:
- decreased muscle mass, strength, and endurance
- reduction in mobility and flexibility
- decrease in balance and coordination
- reduction in bone strength
- decreased respiratory and cardiovascular function
- increase in fat levels
- increased blood pressure levels
- greater risk for depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders
- greater risk for stroke and cardiovascular disease
Why exercise is essential for active aging
Regular exercise is a vital component of active aging. The science suggests that people who consistently exercise not only may live longer but also have a better quality of life. While exercise is a good prescription for good health no matter the age, it is of paramount importance to the older adult who may be experiencing biological changes associated with age.
The WHO guidelines for minimum physical activity recommend that adults from 18 to 64 years old should be doing 150 to 300 minutes (about 5 hours) or 75-150 minutes (about 2 ½ hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or an equivalent combination of vigorous and moderate-intensity activity throughout the week. The guidelines also recommend doing muscle-strengthening activities covering all the major muscle groups at least twice a week.
The guidelines apply to older adults 65 and above but it is recommended that activities that help improve functional balance be added to the regimen to help in fall prevention and increase functional independence. Joining exercise classes tailored to over 50 adults can be a good way to combine exercise and social interaction, with peers providing extra motivation to train regularly and over the long term.
Physical activities for the elderly and older adults may include yoga, cycling, swimming, hiking, and dancing. Doing household tasks also qualifies – remember that everything adds up.
For older adults with chronic conditions and joint issues, exercising in a water environment such as hydrotherapy or aquatic aerobics offer the advantages of buoyancy – the body feels lighter and better balanced and the muscles and joints can move in a greater range of motion. Training in hot water may also offer therapeutic benefits for those with arthritis while cold water hydrotherapy may provide a refreshing workout.
Before starting an exercise routine, it will be beneficial to first consult an Accredited Health Professional such as an Exercise Physiologist (EP). A good and competent EP will make a detailed assessment of your needs and health condition that will form the basis for an activity or exercise program tailored specifically to your goals and needs.
Common barriers to exercise among older people
- Misconceptions about the role of physical activity for seniors/older adults – There are quite a lot of misconceptions about physical activity among older adults that can be a hurdle to getting enough exercise. These may include the following beliefs: that older adults do not need as much physical activity as they age, that exercise is risky, that physical activity must be vigorous or of high volume to be beneficial, and that older adults are weak and physically frail.
- Lack of access to inclusive facilities and affordable programs – a lot of facilities and activities may be geared toward a younger and/or more affluent market and hence, may not seem welcoming to the older adult. These can be addressed by healthcare providers who consider the needs of older adults when offering and conducting exercise classes and training programs.
- Lack of access to professional guidance and training programs – older adults can benefit from consulting with accredited Health Professionals such as an Exercise Physiologist (EP) given proper awareness on where to get in touch with one.
- Preference for more sedentary activities – some older adults may be more predisposed to more sedentary pursuits such as reading or a similar solitary hobby.
Growing older is natural, aging in poor health is optional
Aging is part of living but there are things you can do to stay young. Your chronological age doesn’t have to mean declining health and function. And it’s never too late to start on your journey to better health. If you want to start exercising but do not know where to start, reach out to your Exercise Physiologist. If you know you need to eat smarter but can’t figure out how, get in touch with a certified nutritionist or dietitian. Taking stock of your health and doing something about it will not only add more years to your life but more life to your years.