Britain is ageing at an unprecedented rate. In 1900, less than 5% of the population were over 65 years of age but now that figure is approaching 20%. It is estimated that by 2020, 25% of the nation will be over-65. The statistics are even more remarkable for the oldest group of people, namely those over 85, who are the most rapidly growing section of our society. We have been warned by experts on many occasions about the increasing costs of providing health and social care for the elderly.
However, it’s not all bad news. Recent research shows that a healthy lifestyle can have a major impact on the ageing process. Ageing does not have to be something negative that happens when we get older. In fact we can do much to influence how our bodies age and one of the most powerful lifestyle interventions is regular physical activity. Indeed, a recent World Health Organisation Report concluded that physical activity is the single most effective means for individuals to positively influence their own health and functional abilities and thus maintain a high quality of life in old age.
So, what might some of these benefits be? Well, for example, even a single bout of exercise, such as a brisk walk or swim can improve sleep, help lower blood pressure and regulate blood glucose levels. Regular participation improves cardiovascular functioning, increases muscle strength and enhances balance and flexibility. The physiological benefits of exercise apply equally to men and women of all ages. In addition, there are significant psychological benefits for elderly persons. The feeling of having more energy and vitality, being better able to relax and having not only more self-confidence but also more ‘body-confidence’ are key factors. The social benefits of joining a walking group, a swimming club or one of the many other senior citizen organisations that promote healthy lifestyles provide wonderful opportunities for seniors to widen their social networks, form new friendships and acquire new positive roles during their retirement.
However, although the benefits of exercise for the elderly are well established, it is reported than a huge percentage of our population over 50 takes very little leisure-time exercise at all! Indeed, the number of inactive older adults increases as age increases and in some groups, especially older women, the percentage may be as high as 60-70%!
So why? What’s the problem?
One of the main reasons is that reliable information about these health benefits has yet to reach many older people. The messages are often muddled, and there are too many myths and misconceptions, such as:
Many people really believe this. However, exercise has been shown to benefits people of all ages, including those in their 90s and even 100s!
Becoming more physically active will improve quality of life for the vast majority of older people. Indeed, it may be most effective in people with chronic conditions and diseases. In our own laboratories here in Chester we are undertaking research, together with surgeons from the local hospital, on elderly patients suffering from a disabling condition affecting the lower limbs called peripheral artery disease. Most patients were unable to walk more than a couple of minutes on our treadmill at a very slow speed before having to stop with chronic leg pains. They were all on a waiting list for surgery. However, after 3 months of a gently progressive walking programme, together with changes in smoking and eating habits where appropriate, the results were startling. One 75-yr old lady who walked for less than ONE minute initially, was able to walk for a full THIRTY minutes at a fairly brisk pace – what’s more, she was taken off the waiting list. So, how’s that for improvement in quality of life – she was a totally different person – full of life and full of confidence!
Perhaps surprisingly, many elderly people feel that they are not fit enough to join an exercise class. One common misconception is that those who go to such classes are fit – and that they would be embarrassed. In fact, classes such as Rosemary’s are tailor-made for unfit elderly people and they would be with others similarly out-of-shape. Those individuals would get expert advice on how to improve their fitness gradually and effectively.
Myth 4: You need special clothing and equipment:
Safe and effective exercise can be performed in loose-fitting everyday clothes and comfortable shoes. Even strength training can be done at home with inexpensive equipment, with household items or just using your body weight.
Many older adults learned about exercise when it was believed that it had to hurt to be of any benefit. We now know better – and if it hurts, you’re probably doing too much of the wrong type of exercise.
Keeping on the move with a wide variety of physical activities is a great way for elderly people to stay in shape. If you have elderly relatives – pass on the message: ‘regular exercise promotes healthy ageing’.
It’s a well-known fact that as we get older, most of us put on weight. It is only the few who move into middle age can comfortably get into dresses and trousers we wore in our 20s. In fact across the UK population, on average there is a gradual increase in body weight of 3–5 kg (7-12lbs) per decade between the ages of 30 and 50 – the dreaded middle-age spread!
Why is this?
A major factor is that for most of us, after the age of 30 our general level of physiological function begins to slow down. We become less active and our aerobic fitness level decreases by around 5% per decade. Reactions slow, lung efficiency decreases, heart and circulation become less efficient, muscles lose strength (we actually lose muscle fibres (sarcopenia) as we age. On average we lose around 40-50% of our muscle mass between 30 and 65 years of age with a similar loss of bone mass. Since muscle (lean tissue) is a key calorie burner, our metabolism slows by as much as 5-10% per decade after 30. Not surprisingly therefore, if our eating habits remain the same, we become fat storers rather than fat burners – and we put on weight. Unfortunately, there is not an age-related decline in appetite!
But look at the graph below which demonstrates the remarkable effects of keeping fit and physically active. Even from early childhood there is a marked difference in general physiological function between sedentary and active individuals. During the optimal timeslot in our 20s, there is a 20-25% difference in the way our bodies work – and this extends well into our older years. In fact an active 65 year-old can have the physiology of a person more than 20 years younger!
Staying fit and active maintains muscle mass which helps prevent the lowering of metabolic rate, which in turn helps prevent the age-related weight loss so commonly seen in our society.
Whilst the most common method of weight loss is dieting, the long-term success rate of this method is quite poor. Only about 10-20% of those who lose weight by reducing calories maintain their full weight loss over the longer term Taking exercise is strongly associated with better long-term weight control than dieting alone.
A study recently published in the International Journal of Obesity surveyed of over 5,000 middle-aged men and women compared improvements in aerobic fitness – measured by the time walked on a treadmill with the gradient increasing every minute – with changes in body weight over an 8-year period. Even those who only marginally improved their aerobic fitness level (i.e. a one-minute improvement in treadmill time) gained on average only 0.6 kilograms (1.3lbs) compared to those who showed no improvement in fitness who gained on average almost 5kgs (11lbs) over the 8 years.
Each one-minute improvement in treadmill time reduced the chance of a 6kg (1stone) weight gain by 15% in men and by 10% in women and the chance of a 10kg (3 stones) gain by 21 percent in both men and women.
It should be noted, however, that improvements in fitness level were necessary to minimize weight gain; simply maintaining a given fitness level was not sufficient to ward off the slow increase in body weight through middle age. Indeed, these and other recent findings suggest that increasing amounts of physical activity may be necessary to effectively maintain a constant body weight with increasing age.
Thus, it seems that increased physical activity and fitness play more of a role in minimizing age-related weight gain and preventing significant weight gain than in promoting weight loss. Many of the chronic and disabling diseases now prevalent in our society may be in part attributed to an increase in age-related weight gain.
The message is clear. For long-term weight control, regular exercise is a must.
If you didn’t know how old you are… how old would you think you are?
Your age tells us little about your health, well-being, appearance, energy levels or your physical fitness. As the saying goes: “You’re as old as you feel”.
Some people look and act much older than they are all the time – they seem to have aged prematurely! But others look remarkable, exude energy and exuberance – and look at least 10 years younger than they actually are.
Life expectancy figures have changed dramatically during this century.
In 1900 less than half the population lived to 65 whilst today around 80% live beyond 65 and over 50% live to see their 80th birthday. In fact, by the year 2000, it’s predicted that the fastest growing section of the population will be the over-85s.
However, although these trends are generally welcomed, there is great concern about the growing numbers of elderly people whose quality of life is severely affected by chronic illness and disease. Indeed, the US National Centre for Health Statistics estimates that 20% of the average American’s life is spent in an ‘unhealthy’ state affected by disabilities, injuries and/or disease. That’s over 15 years of illness! And for the majority of us most of that occurs in our later years. For example, amongst the over-65s – around 50% suffer from arthritis, 30% have high blood pressure, 26% suffer heart disease and 25% have problems with bones and joints. But it’s worth remembering that many of these problems may start much earlier in life.
Whilst some illnesses, accidents and injuries strike without warning, it is now well established that leading a healthy lifestyle can have a major influence on both our life expectancy and our quality of life as we get older.
One famous US study, conducted on over 6,000 people in San Francisco showed a dramatic difference in disabling illnesses and death rate between those who followed SEVEN simple health habits and those who did not.
The health habits associated with both longevity and quality of life were:
- Not smoking – smoking is without doubt dangerous to your health. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, try your very best to stop.
- Regular exercise -it’s a staggering fact that you can reduce your risk of a heart attack by almost 50% by taking regular exercise – walking, gardening, swimming, dancing, golf, bowls, cycling, keep fit, etc. Regular aerobic activity supplemented by resistance exercises retains or restores mobility and the capacity for a free and independent life well into advancing years. In fact those who age successfully invariably engage in daily routines that require physical activity.
- Weight control – when weight is more than 20% above or more than 10% below desirable, then health status declines. Keeping your weight in check is an invaluable way of staying healthy as time goes by.
- Moderate alcohol consumption – whilst poor health is associated with heavy alcohol consumption, research shows that those who drink in moderation have lower levels of certain disease, such as heart disease. However, this should not be construed as a broad endorsement of drinking alcohol, since even moderate levels may lead to liver disease in the longer term. The best advice is to drink moderately or not at all – and don’t save the weekends for a binge!
- A good daily breakfast – in the California study, those who regularly ate a good breakfast – rather than just a cup of coffee or tea – experienced better health. Breakfast normally comes around 12 hours after the last (evening) meal when the body is in need of an energy boost.
- Regular meals – the study showed that erratic eaters and ‘snackers’ had poorer health than those who had regular meals. The regular meal-eaters tended to eat more healthy wholesome foods, whilst the ‘snackers’ were junk food eaters high in simple sugar & saturated fats and low in nutrients.
- Adequate sleep – those who slept 7-8 hours per night were generally healthier than those who slept 6 hours or less (or, interestingly those who slept 9 hours or more per night!). Sleep is characterised by a series of alternating stages of rapid eye movement (REM) and quiet. The REM stage is often accompanied by dreams and by changes in heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tone. It accounts for around 20% of the night’s total and if it is interrupted we get anxious and irritable. The deeper and quieter periods provide the rest necessary to recover from fatigue. The body seems to be able to handle missing the occasional night’s sleep but if sleep is disturbed on several nights, the REM sleep stage is increased leading to restless and uncomfortable nights. Moderate exercise helps the body fall into deep sleep without altering the REM pattern. However, too much exercise can adversely affect our sleep patterns.
The Californian study showed that following just SIX of these habits we can add 10 YEARS to our lives. What’s more those following all seven health habits were found to suffer HALF the rates of illness, injury and disability compared to those who did not practice any of them. Leading a healthy lifestyle can not only add years to your life but can greatly increase your quality of life in later years.
However, this information is not just aimed at people in their retirement years – it’s aimed at ALL of us. Leading a healthy and active lifestyle will help ensure that we give ourselves the best chance possible of good health and fitness in the future.
…..Keep Away Those Winter Blues
These winter months have many of us reaching for the holiday brochures. Winter Sun is now huge business for the travel trade with millions of us searching for the sunshine at this time of year. Rain, wind, cloudy weather, cold and lack of sunshine are all normal features of a British winter that many of us find utterly depressing. In fact some of us show a very different pattern of behaviour when the seasons change. For example:
- Do you find you have less energy than in summer?
- Do you find it harder to get out of bed in the morning?
- Do you sleep more but still wake up feeling tired?
- Do you feel more stressed?
- Do you feel more depressed?
- Do you put on weight?
- Do you suffer more from pre-menstrual tension?
- Do you find it more difficult to get enthusiastic about things?
If you answer ‘Yes’ to more than two of the above questions, you may be one of the many who are affected, to a greater or lesser extent, by a condition termed ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ (SAD). In the USA, it is estimated that over 35 million people suffer in one way or another from SAD – or ‘winter blues’. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t appear to trouble people living in Florida and the Southern States as much as those living in New Hampshire and the northern Great Lakes States. And in Europe, it’s a far bigger problem for those living in Norway and Sweden than for those in Mediterranean countries. The studies also show that women are around 3-4 times as likely to suffer from ’winter blues’ as men. The problem seem to affect 20-40 year olds in particular, with reports of lethargy, fatigue, ravenous appetite, weight gain, carbohydrate craving, withdrawal from relationships, inability to concentrate or focus, problems at work, anxiety and despair during the winter months.
‘Winter blues’ or SAD is thought to be brought on by lack of daylight. In summer, the days are long and the light is generally bright. But in a British winter, the days are short and the light is generally of poor quality. It is only during the last decade or so that scientists have really begun to understand the importance of natural daylight to out health and vitality.
Daylight enters our eyes (even when our eyes are closed) and sends signals to the pineal gland, located at the centre of the brain. Bright light causes a whole series of physiological responses and changes in the body. The morning sun wakes us up, whereas at night-time the darkness stimulates production of the hormone melatonin, which makes us feel drowsy and sleepy. During long summer days, more endorphins and serotonin are produced in the brain – these are neurotransmitters which make us feel better, more energetic, less depressed and less moody.
Being outdoors in daylight also encourages the production of more Vitamin D, which is manufactured in the skin as a result of exposure to daylight. This promotes better absorption of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, which strengthen our bones & teeth and are essential in combating arthritis, osteoporosis and the negative effects of the menopause. In spring, when the days begin to lengthen, our sex hormones take a surge forward. Indeed the peak time for conception is late spring and early summer. A young man’s fancy….and all that!
The Ancient Greeks recognised the importance of daylight to health and fitness by training outdoors naked, thus exposing all of their muscles to gain a beneficial effect from the sunlight! The Victorians had their ‘morning constitutional walk’, whilst from the turn of the century up to the Second World War, sanatoriums were built to enable patients to sit outside and receive daily exposures to sunlight as a part of the treatment.
Interestingly, a recent report from the USA found that heart patients whose beds were on the sunny-side of the ward recovered faster than other patients! Was this just coincidence?
Some current experts are now suggesting that fitness training outdoors is more beneficial than an indoor workout. When the skin is exposed to daylight the capacity of the blood for transporting oxygen goes up, more oxygen and nutrients are supplied to the tissues and muscles become better toned. Some research also suggests that we are better able to fat-burn when we exercise outdoors in natural daylight. Several offices and gymnasia now have full-spectrum lighting and whilst there have been some problems, most report good effects.
Many of us lead lifestyles where as much as 90% of our time is spent indoors, away from natural daylight. We travel to work in a car, bus or train, work indoors, lunch indoors, return home and spend our leisure time indoors. Why is it that shift workers have more health problems than the rest of us? More stress, less exercise, more smokers – or could it be light-deficiency?
Curing or keeping away those winter blues can be helped greatly by daily outdoor physical activity and increasing the amount of light in the home and working environments:
- Get as much daylight as possible through windows – try trimming bushes that are in front of windows, paint walls with light, bright colours, install brighter light bulbs, etc.
- Try to sit for periods of time at work or at home in front of sunlit windows. Maybe rearrange your workspace to be near a window – or make sure the lighting is good in your work area.
- Exercise daily, preferably outdoors – for example, a daily 20-minute walk around the block at lunchtime. If indoors, exercise in brightly lit environments.
- Try to stay on a regular sleep/wake cycle.
- If you are able, enjoy a winter holiday in a warm, sunny climate – but take care and use a good sunscreen!
Regular exercise is a great way to helps keep away those winter blues, whether outdoors or indoors. The gyms know that attendance will increase during the dark, winter months and now tend to offer a wide range of courses and activities.
So, keep active – and don’t be a SAD victim!
Beating the Winter Blues
As the cold weather and dark nights creep in, motivation is harder to find and it’s easy to let those fitness regimes slip.
There are many reasons to stay active over the winter months. Regular activity raises serotonin levels, helping to reduce common feelings of depression associated with the darker months. Also, research shows that you’ll have less chance of catching the winter lurgies! One study suggests that exercising regularly and moderately can halve your risk of sore throats and those pesky winter colds.
Boost your motivation using these top tips for keeping workouts fresh and interesting over the winter:
Increase duration/intensity of exercise – add an extra few minutes to your routine or introduce short bursts of high intensity into your normal workout.
Adapt your regime to prevent fitness plateaus – the body quickly adapts to regular exercise, meaning you need to ring the changes to keep workouts challenging. Try new activities or changing speed and intensity in your existing routine.
Find yourself a workout buddy – the right partner can help you alleviate boredom and stick to your exercise regime. A partner can also motivate and challenge you to succeed.
Set realistic goals – choose a training goal appropriate to your fitness and skill level. Challenge yourself but be realistic about progress. Signing up for a race or other charity fitness event can give you the motivation needed to keep up your training.
Stay positive – a positive mental attitude can work wonders. Endorphin levels drop after just a couple of days of inactivity, reducing mood and energy, making you feel less inclined to exercise. Try to focus on the positive feeling you get after a good workout.