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Exercise is key to good health as we age

We might try to deny it, but we are all getting older. While there are definitely some great things about aging (who can complain about a senior discount?), most older people probably notice that they aren’t quite as strong and fit as they were in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

Unfortunately, aging is usually accompanied by a loss in cardiorespiratory fitness and decreased muscle and bone mass. When too much fitness is lost, older individuals can no longer perform activities of daily living and they lose their physical independence. Decreased physical activity and aging are also associated with increased rates of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. This all sounds pretty grim. So, how can we combat loss of fitness and maintain our health and independence? Unsurprisingly, exercise is the best medicine.

If you could take it as a pill, exercise truly would be a miracle drug. Some of the benefits of regular physical activity include: decreased chronic disease risk, decreased body fat, increased muscle and bone mass, and increased physical function. But exercise isn’t just good for the body, it’s also good for the mind. Exercise slows rates of cognitive decline and reduces the risk of developing dementia. Exercise can also increase psychological well-being and lower rates of depression. All these combine to greatly improve the quality of life for regular exercisers.

What do you need to do to reap all these benefits? The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that aged individuals do aerobic exercise (walking, jogging, biking) three to five days per week, for 30 to 60 minutes at a time. It also recommends two to three days per week of strength training with light weights, doing 10 to 15 repetitions of each exercise. There should be at least 48 hours in between strength training sessions to allow the muscles to recover. Finally, the ACSM recommends stretching two to three days per week. Muscles should be stretched just prior to the point of discomfort. Hold the stretch for one minute, and then relax. Following these recommendations can significantly improve your physical fitness and decrease your risk of developing chronic diseases.

Exercise is generally safe, can improve fitness and lowers disease risk. However, exercise can be dangerous for people with certain risk factors. You should talk with your doctor before starting an exercise program. Your doctor can determine if you are healthy enough for exercise.

There are a lot of things you can do to help motivate you to exercise. Find an exercise buddy, attend fitness classes or join an online fitness challenge. So get out and get moving. Happy exercising!

OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — will be offering more than 80 courses this summer, including Aging and Exercise: The Science Behind Physical Activity, led by Daniel Craighead. To receive a free summer catalog, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit olli.psu.edu.

Daniel Craighead is a kinesiology doctoral student at Penn State. He has taught six semesters of undergraduate exercise physiology.

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