Human beings are designed to move. It’s an inescapable fact of life. From cradle to grave, movement is one of the defining characteristics of life. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that not only is exercise associated with a longer, healthier life, but its opposite—being sedentary—is actually associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease. Not to be alarmist, but this essentially means that sitting around doing nothing can literally kill you.
Exercise is crucial for the development and maintenance of excellent health at any age. In the past, children were allowed to roam free and they typically got in plenty of activity through unstructured, self-directed play. These days, many children are showing adverse effects from too little activity. Once unheard of, childhood obesity—and nascent heart disease—are on the rise among the nation’s children. Historically, efforts to promote regular activity focused on adults, who might not get in adequate exercise otherwise.
But the reality is there is no stage of life—short of babyhood—during which regular physical activity is not crucial for optimal health. Older adults are no different than younger adults. If anything, they often stand to benefit even more from exercise than their younger counterparts. That’s because there’s a tendency as we age to lose muscle mass at an increasing rate. This loss of muscle mass can be counteracted by careful attention to strength and aerobic conditioning.
Regular physical exercise is associated with a host of benefits—including a more robust immune system, better sleep, sharper cognition (and even greater brain mass)—among other inarguable benefits. People exercise regularly are less likely to be overweight or obese, and they have fewer inflammation-related illnesses, such as arthritis. In fact, one of the chief recommendations for people with mild arthritis is to spend more time exercising and putting stress on affected joints—not less.
In terms of brain function, more exercise is linked to greater brain plasticity. That means that the brains of people who exercise continue making new connections, pruning old, obsolete ones, and generally working efficiently to keep the mind sharp. As noted in a 2013 issue of Trends in Cognitive Science, “Overall, converging evidence suggests exercise benefits brain function and cognition across the mammalian lifespan, which may translate into reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in humans.”
Older people who exercise regularly also enjoy increased protection against cardiovascular disease, including reductions in some of its major risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, abnormal blood lipid levels, etc.
In summation, exercise programs for older people are crucial ways to help maintain health, mobility and quality of life as a hedge against the deficits that inevitably come with aging. People who exercise are more likely to retain their independence, thanks in part to the maintenance of mobility that can be achieved with participation in a regular exercise/conditioning program.