10 Reasons to Keep Fit as You Age

By Saling, Joseph

"Physical activity has been engineered out of our daily lives," laments David Atkins, M.D., M.P.H., chief medical officer in the Center for Outcomes and Evidence at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

"We used to rake leaves by hand and walk to the market," Dr. Atkins says. "Now we have leaf blowers and take the car everywhere." So a lot of us don't get the kind of day-to-day physical activity we need.

Cedric Bryant, Ph.D., agrees. Dr. Bryant is chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. "Most people plan for financial independence," he says. "But too often, they neglect what they need to be physically independent."

"Physical activity" means any movement of the body that is made by skeletal muscles -- and requires energy to accomplish. "Physical fitness" means the ability of a person to do physical activity. Physical fitness can be measured by determining endurance, power and flexibility.

How physically independent you are, he says, depends on how well you can function physically. That is one of the best reasons to stay physically active -- but it's not the only reason. ACE has put together a list of 10 reasons you should make physical activity a part of your everyday life.

To be safe, talk with your doctor before you start or add to an exercise plan. Even a little bit of exercise will help. "A little activity is better than no activity," Dr. Bryant says.

1. It increases bone density and limits osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis affects 10 million men and women, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, while an additional 34 million Americans have low bone mass, putting them at risk for developing osteoporosis. The disease makes your bones weak and brittle. Exercise increases bone strength. The best kinds of exercise to make bones stronger are weight-bearing exercises like walking and resistance exercises such as lifting weights. But you don't need to become a competitive walker or body builder. Just living an active lifestyle will help your bones stay strong. "Do things you enjoy," Dr. Atkins says. "Work in the garden. Walk to the store. Go dancing. Just a little exercise every day...will make a difference." (You also need vitamin D and calcium for good bone health.)

2. It helps you stay independent.

The point of being active, Dr. Bryant says, is to maintain your ability to function. "As they get older, most people don't care how much oxygen they can inhale or what their percentage of body fat is," he says. "Those things won't motivate. What is important is being able to play with grandchildren, go out with friends and just do the things you have to do."

Studies show, he adds, that people who exercise over their lifetimes can avoid being disabled at the end of their lives. Those who don't exercise, if they live long enough, are sure to experience disability.

3. It increases metabolism.

Metabolism measures how your body handles and uses nutrients. Strength training increases muscle mass, which raises metabolism. One benefit is that your body uses more of the calories you take in because your resting metabolic rate increases. That leads to less body fat and makes it easier to control your weight. Just being a few pounds overweight puts you at high risk for many health problems. "Physical activity lowers that risk," Dr. Atkins says.

4. It reduces your risk for falls.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that exercise lets you practice keeping your balance and reacting to things around you. The second is that exercise can help arrest a natural decline in muscle fitness. "Of all the various benefits from exercise," Dr. Bryant says, "the most important for seniors is muscular fitness. Things people take for granted when they are younger all require a certain level of muscle strength. That includes just getting up out of a chair or walking fast enough to get across the street before the light changes." Exercise will keep your muscles fit.


Did You Know?

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Older Americans are the least physically active age group, according to the Foundation for Health in Aging. Only about 20 percent of older adults are moderately active.