Focusing on fitness early may help with decline when aging
Specific exercises and activities can help maintain balance, muscle strength
It’s estimated that by the year 2030, 20 to 25 per cent of the North American population will be over 65. As people in this age group strive to live the most active and independent lifestyle they can, it’s critical for anyone over the age of 50 to start today to optimize their health and fitness.
While there are things we cannot change as we age, such as wrinkles, hearing loss and diminished eyesight, there are many other things we have control over and can improve.
In the past decade, “functional” has become a fitness buzzword, often referring to training systems and exercises that take a different approach to training than traditional methodologies.
Functional training can be defined as training that enhances the co-ordinated relationship between the nervous and muscular systems. It involves increased mobility, skill and strength that improves your functional capacity to perform common activities of daily living, such as getting up and out of a chair, walking and climbing stairs.
Exactly what exercises will improve your functional capacity depends on where you start. Think of it as the progression from walking your dog around the block to being able to travel and climb up the Acropolis if you wanted to. It isn’t important where you start your fitness program that matters the most, it’s about the gains you make along the way that make you feel younger and independent.
Unfortunately, one of the early signs of aging isn’t physical, it’s mental. It starts one day when you notice that your list of “can’t do” activities becomes longer than your “can do” list of activities. As they say, you’re only as old as you feel. Nothing makes us feel younger than moving every day and nothing makes us feel older than sitting all day.
Beginning at 40 years of age, muscle mass begins to diminish, corresponding to a progressive loss in muscle strength and power. Not only does this decrease functional capacity, it increases the risk of falls. This age-related loss of muscle mass is known as sarcopenia. This loss progresses at an average annual rate of one to two per cent until the age of 60 and accelerates to three per cent per year after that. Even more detrimental to functional ability than sarcopenia is loss of muscle strength, which declines at a much faster rate, as much as 50 per cent with increasing age.
Lifelong physical activity, combined with specific functional training, is key to maintaining physical independence. Training should involve six functional domains: neuromuscular (nerve to muscle); musculoskeletal (muscles and bones); balance; mobility; cardiorespiratory (heart and lungs); and cognition (brain).
According to orthopedic physiotherapist Terry Kane, two of the most common signs of aging are our walking speed and our ability to get up from a chair without using our hands.
“To see a young man walking slow catches our eye and creates the impression that something is wrong with him, while watching an older man walk briskly creates admiration and respect. Making an effort to take 20 strides as quickly and safely as possible every day is a great way to maintain your neuromuscular function and confidence” says Kane.
With respect to getting up from a chair requiring the use of your hands, Kane says that while it may be easier, it can lead to a significant loss of leg strength that is almost impossible to restore without a lot of exercise.
Kane encourages patients to perform what he calls pillow squats where the patient puts two pillows on a chair and the patient proceeds to lower themselves until they touch the pillow then immediately stand back up without the use of their hands or sitting down completely. As the patient improves their strength and is able to perform between 10 and 15 repetitions in a row, Kane asks the patient to remove one pillow from the chair to make it more challenging. Essentially, every pillow that’s removed is a good indication of increased leg strength.
Incorporating balance and reactivity exercises are important to keeping the neuromuscular system fit. It’s also essential to perform exercises that require the mind and body to co-ordinate activities, such as following the lead of an instructor in a group fitness class or having to react in a game of tennis. Incorporating balance exercises into your strength training routine, such as standing on a BOSU, or performing single-leg exercises as in an alternating front lunge are all effective in improving balance. Learning choreography and repeating the exercises while saying the names of the moves is an effective way to train cognitive age.
A decline in fitness with aging affects every aspect of daily life. When an individual is no longer able to perform basic, everyday activities, such as rising from a chair, climbing stairs, reaching overhead or carry objects, their independence and functional ability are greatly affected.
The solution is to keep moving. Stay strong. Exercise your mind and your body. Keep going!
Fitness specialist Helen Vanderburg demonstrates an exercise called a pillow squat, designed to help retain leg strength. Muscle strength, balance and cognitive skills are important to nurture when aging, she says.