Physical activity is the key to remaining fit. Exercise, together with a healthy diet breathes life into one’s overall health and lifespan. From strengthening the bones and muscles, weight loss and reducing the risk of chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension, to the associated endorphins-release that keeps one happy and charged, exercises are vital in leading a fulfilling life.
In 2020, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2021-2030 as the ‘Decade of Healthy Ageing.’ Research over the past couple of decades suggests that increasing physical activity promotes healthy ageing as well as helps manage the signs of ageing better.
Live long, exercise
A 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis published in Ageing Research Reviews reveals that higher levels of physical activity increase the odds of healthy ageing by 39 per cent.
“Exercise and diet have proven to be the most effective way to live longer and prevent several diseases typically associated with ageing,” says Dr Amit Sharma, group leader, ImmunoSENS, SENS Research Foundation, California, USA. “Physically active individuals tend to have lower incidences of various chronic diseases including hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis and even cancer. An epidemiological study demonstrated that the risk of all-cause mortality was higher in physically inactive people.”
Exercise has been shown to reduce obesity, weight gain, coronary heart diseases, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease too.
The benefits of physical activity are not limited to physical health alone, but extend over to mental and psychological benefits too, including slowing down age-associated cognitive decline. Exercise has been characterised as an evidence-based treatment for depression and improves cognition, working memory and attention to detail for patients with schizophrenia, suggests the 2017 review.
“Exercise can affect several underlying mechanisms of ageing,” explains Dr Sharma. “It can reduce inflammation [age-related dysregulation of the immune system] and mechanisms involved in producing inflammation. It improves DNA repair enzymes that tend to decline in expression or function with age. Exercise also slows down the process of loss of the ends of chromosomes [called telomeres] which becomes shorter every time a cell divides. Good thing is that even exercising for a few minutes a day can show measurable improvement.”
Anti-ageing formula: recommended exercise
There are four major types of exercises that one must include in a workout routine: endurance, resistance, balance and flexibility exercise.
Endurance workouts are aerobic exercises like brisk walking, stair climbing, running, cycling and swimming. They aid in cardiovascular fitness or heart health, weight loss and in preventing and managing diabetes and colon and breast cancers, amongst other multi-system benefits.
Strength training or resistance workouts are of utmost importance when it comes to managing the symptoms of ageing and even losing weight. These exercises strengthen the bones and muscles and help prevent osteoporosis or weak bones. They build muscle mass and improve bone density. Lifting weights, carrying groceries, bodyweight exercises, arm curls, using resistance bands, etc come under the ambit of resistance exercise.
Dr Sharma opines that “both aerobic exercises, that increase heart rate over a period and lifting weights, can be very useful. It is important to slowly build up the ability to do these exercises, instead of starting all at once”.
Furthermore, balance training is crucial to prevent falls and related injuries and to building neuromuscular coordination. Tai Chi, heel-to-toe walks, balancing walks and balancing on foam pads or balance boards, can be adopted to improve proprioception or body balance.
Flexibility exercise involves stretching the body. Yoga can be a good way of improving overall flexibility.
A Harvard Health Blog post prescribes a mix of moderate aerobic activities like running, walking, swimming or cycling (150 to 300 minutes per week), along with resistance or strength training twice a week. It can also be a mix of vigorous activities (not more than 75 minutes) and moderate cardio workouts. To be followed only if there are no restrictions based on medical advice. This should be enough to maintain a desirable level of fitness.
Every step counts
One may argue that older adults tend to be physically inactive for long periods, owing to various limiting health conditions.
A 2021 review published in The Lancet’s Health Longevity, says that older adults tend to be sedentary, a whopping 60 per cent of their waking time. While physical activity is associated with lower mortality and frailty, lesser chances of falling, increased muscle strength, and better cognition, being sedentary has a negative impact on these outcomes.
The saying ‘every step counts’ reiterates the review, quite contrary to the popular WHO guidelines from 2020 emphasising a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise a week. The point is to remove sedentary behaviour altogether, with physical activity at any intensity. Some activity is better than none, and more is better.
Dr Sharma shares that “the most easily measured signs of ageing are walking speed and grip strength, in addition to cardiac and lung function. The decline of these are clear and easily noticeable indications of ageing”.
As per The Lancet’s 2021 review, an increase in step count by 1,000 was associated with a quantitatively higher hand grip strength, a shorter completion time for five chair stands [a test in which participants stand up repeatedly from a chair for 30 secs] and an improved score in a mini-mental state examination and counters the reported annual declines in these parameters after mid-life.
These step counts can be easily achieved through household chores, errands, self-care or using public transport.
“Exercise and a healthy diet are the most important ways to combat ageing,” reiterates Dr Sharma. “It is interesting that modern science is re-discovering the ancient wisdom passed on to us. We are now only figuring out how this works.”
- Regular physical activity keeps one healthy and functioning through the advancing years.
- Exercise reduces the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular conditions and cancer, as well as age-related decline in cognition and working memory.
- Some amount of exercise is better than none for healthy ageing.