Anyone who knows me well would not be surprised to learn that I seek out fitness articles in whatever I’m reading. Even I was caught off guard a bit, however, when I ran across a fitness article of sorts in a recent Sunday edition of the Austin American Statesman business section. The columnist, Scott Burns, discussed the increasing longevity predictions for the average American. At 70 something years old, he admitted to leading a rather sedentary life to this point. He used a website to calculate his life expectancy (www.bluezones.com), and was surprised at the results. In spite of his lifestyle, the Vitality Compass predicted his total life expectancy as 96.2 years and his healthy life expectancy as 88.7 years. A little shocking for a writer who has spent the majority of his life behind a desk and almost no time in a gym!
The point of his article was to show how this increasing life expectancy is going to affect all of us – financially. The most recent Medicare Trustees Report said the unfunded liabilities of Medicare over the next 75 years are $27.2 trillion. If anything will drive our country to bankruptcy, health care certainly could. To quote Mr. Burns, “the largest single problem this country faces is health care for a population that thinks (and acts) as if health were a pill and not a personal responsibility.” What we can do – each of us – is to look at our health and lifestyle and make changes that will positively impact our future years.
Our health and lifestyle are a personal responsibility.
What to do now to make those future years more enjoyable – and less costly:
• Keep Moving!
Aerobic exercise, whether it is walking, running, biking, or swimming, among others, can help you live longer and healthier. The Mayo Clinic cites 10 ways consistent aerobic activity will benefit your health:
1. Diminish weight gain.Not only can the movement help you lose weight, but it will also help keep it off.
2. Increase stamina.While forcing increased heart rate while you’re doing it (thereby conditioning the heart) and making you tired in the short term, a regular aerobic routine will increase stamina and reduce fatigue.
3.Ward off viral illnesses.The activity will activate your immune system, leaving you less susceptible to minor viral illnesses like cold and flu.
4. Reduce your health risk.It makes you healthier by reducing the risk of many conditions such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke and certain types of cancer. And if your aerobic exercise is weight bearing, such as walking or running, it also will protect against osteoporosis.
5. Manage chronic conditions.If you already have a problem with high blood pressure or elevated blood sugar, it can bring them to a manageable level.
6. Strengthen your heart.And who doesn’t want a stronger heart? Aerobic activity will lower your resting heart rate, thereby making your heart more efficient.
7. Keep your arteries clear.Aerobic activity raises the “good cholesterol” (HDL) and lowers the “bad” (LDL), thereby reducing the amount of plaque buildup in your arteries. Too much plaque can lead to stroke.
8. Boost your mood.Don’t you always feel better when your exercise is over? It stimulates hormones in your body which reduce tension and promote relaxation.
9. Stay active and independent as you age.Here we go! Not only does aerobic exercise strengthen the large muscles of our body, but studies continue to show it also benefits our brain. Dementia is caused by blockages of small blood vessels in the brain. Consistent aerobic activity lessens that plaque buildup, thereby reducing our chance of dementia.
10. Live longer.Since our life expectancy continues to grow, why not be as healthy as we can be?
• Strengthen those Muscles!
Our muscles grow larger and stronger as we age, but only until about the age of 30. After that, people who are relatively inactive will lose between 3% and 5% of their muscle mass every decade. These changes are not so noticeable in your 30’s and 40’s, but they increase exponentially as you age and they become significant after age 60.
Loss of muscle mass has a name – sarcopenia. It is a natural result of aging, but it doesn’t have to happen to you. It is reversible! But why should that matter to you? Here are a few consequences of sarcopenia and how they can negatively affect your life and your future:
1. Weight Gain.As our muscle mass decreases, the amount of fat in our body increases. Our metabolism slows and prevents our body from burning fuel efficiently. Thus, eating the same amount of calories in your sixties as you did in your thirties leads to weight gain. And of course, the consequences of weight gain are numerous: cholesterol problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, and joint problems, just to name a few.
2. Loss of Functional Strength.The activities that you used to accomplish easily become more difficult. Performing household chores, carrying groceries, getting out of a chair, playing golf and even carrying a grandchild can become more cumbersome and maybe even impossible as muscle loss occurs.
3. Loss of Balance.Your balance – or lack of it – is strongly associated with your lower body strength – the strength of your legs, hips and buttocks. And the consequences of lack of balance are huge. Falls in older adults are the leading cause of injury deaths (Murphy 2000) and the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma (Alexander 1992).
4. Bone Loss.With age our bones become less dense, leading to the debilitating condition of osteoporosis and its predecessor, osteopenia. Recent studies published in Consumer Reports conclude that weight bearing exercise, including strength training and walking, are more effective in preventing osteoporosis in people who have osteopenia than medication.
So, what can you do?
It’s simple – begin a strength training program! A regular routine of lifting weights and doing resistance exercises can lead to a dramatic improvement in our quality of life. As muscle mass increases, those problems listed above can all be dramatically reversed.
You don’t need to become a body builder or a gym rat to get the results. Just a 30-60 minute session twice a week on a consistent basis can rebuild your muscles and lead to increased strength and functionality. Use a combination of weight machines, free weights and body strength exercises to target all major muscle groups.
Have you waited too long to get started? It’s never too late! In an extreme example, the Journal of the American Medical Associationpublished a study in June, 1990 of nursing home residents, average age 90, who were put on an 8-week strength training program. They did one leg extension exercise - 3 sets of 8 repetitions 3 times a week. The results: average quadriceps strength increased by 174% and thigh muscle mass increased 9%. The subjects also performed 48% better on a walking test after the training period. So, not only did functional strength improve (the quadriceps muscle is directly associated with the ability to get up from a chair unassisted), but because their walking ability improved, their chance of falls was greatly reduced. Success on many levels!
Positive Results – Physically and Financially
By taking control of your health, not only will your quality of life be enriched, but the financial rewards will be as well. We all need to be concerned about the strained healthcare markets and the effect of their costs on our nation. Closer to home, paying for a gym membership and a personal trainer is far less than the cost you’ll pay for doctors, medical procedures and medication that accompany an unhealthy lifestyle.
It’s up to you – what will you choose?