“ Mens sana in corpore sano” ~ Roman poet Juvenal (c.55 – 127 AD)
A sound mind in a sound body is more than just an ancient Spartan proverb. It sagely and cleverly directs us to a golden pathway leading to health, wellness and happiness.
Physical exercise is an important and essential part of mental and psychological well-being. Exercise can help make you stronger, prevent bone loss, improve balance and coordination, and ease the symptoms of many chronic conditions.
Still, that sage message is falling upon deaf ears as fewer seniors are heeding this advice. Inactivity increases with age. By age 75, about one in three men and one in two women engage in no physical activity. According to the CDC, the statistics are troubling: The number of adults unable (or very difficult) to walk a quarter mile: 17.1 million; Percent of adults unable (or very difficult) to walk a quarter mile: 7.1%; Number of adults with any physical functioning difficulty: 36.2 million; Percent of adults with any physical functioning difficulty: 15.1%.
Physical weakness and functional decline are often the result of a sedentary lifestyle. The National Institute on Aging released startling statistics after a physical health study performed on individuals aged 75 and older demonstrated an immediate need to improve the fitness health of frail seniors. The study revealed that 40 percent of the seniors studied could not walk two blocks; 32 percent could not climb 10 steps; 22 percent could not lift 10 pounds; and 7 percent could not walk across a small room.
Muscular strength and endurance deteriorate through inactivity so it makes sense to keep moving. The Office of Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services note that fitness can effectively produce many physiological benefits including improving circulation to reduce high blood pressure, improving joint flexibility and range of motion, and improving respiratory ability and efficiency.
Four types of exercise
For older adults and seniors who want to stay healthy and independent, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend four types of exercises: strength, balance, endurance and stretching.
Strength exercises. Working out in the gym is not just for Millennials and competitive athletes. Strength exercises build older adult muscles and increase your metabolism, which helps to keep your weight and blood sugar in check. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that strength exercises may help reduce the symptoms of arthritis and diabetes, as well as ease lower back pain. One of the best ways to deal with osteoporosis and strengthen weak bones is with regular exercise.
Balance exercises build leg muscles, and this helps to prevent falls. According to the NIH, U.S. hospitals have 300,000 admissions
for broken hips each year, many of them seniors. Falling is often the cause of those fractures. If you are an older adult, balance exercises will help you avoid problems, as you get older. And if you are a senior, balance exercises can help you stay independent by helping you avoid the disabilities that could result from falling. Exercises like Tai Chi may be especially helpful in improving balance.
Stretching exercises, such as Tai Chi, pilates, quigong and yoga, can provide more freedom of movement, allowing individuals to become more active during their senior years. A study published in the Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine in 2006 looked at the effects of yoga on 135 healthy individuals between the age of 65 and 85. Results showed significant improvement in quality of life measures and physical measures. Physical measures were forward bend flexibility, a timed single leg stand to assess balance, and a chair sit and reach test for flexibility.
Endurance or cardio exercises are any activity- walking, jogging, swimming, biking, even raking leaves- that increases your heart rate and breathing for an extended period of time. Build up your endurance gradually, starting with as little as five minutes of endurance activities at a time. Exercise builds strength, balance, and agility. Among adults aged 65 years and older, walking and gardening or yard work are, by far, the most popular physical activities. Cardio exercises are very good for improving heart health and also contribute to weight loss.
Exercise improves more than your physical health and can help you maintain your independence and way of life. Being able to ambulate to the market, church or park promotes independence, the single most important variable for seniors. If you stay strong and agile as you age, you’ll be more able to keep doing the things you enjoy and less likely to need help.
Exercise may actually improve the way the brain functions. A number of studies that have linked exercise in older people with better performance on cognitive tests, showed reduced risk for brain illnesses like dementia, and other studies have shown actual changes in brain scans and structure of the brain in terms of randomized controlled trials. Regular exercise can also boost your memory and lift your mood. Exercise increases the development of serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter known to improve and stabilize mood and feelings of well-being.
Additionally, the mild stress that comes with exercise increases blood flow to the brain and may increase the capacity of the brain to form new neural connections. A number of studies have shown that exercise is associated with increased endorphins and release of neurotransmitters and may promote positive neuroplasticity.
Although some seniors are physically unable to exercise, due to physical limitations, many others lose the motivation and desire to exercise. That is unfortunate. A good approach is to set realistic and achievable goals, recognizing that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” With exercise there are no firm rules. Experts believe that every little bit of exercise helps. An initial step to increase motivation is to exercise with a partner or to join an organized group.
That group connection creates the immediate benefit of affiliation within a community. Belongingness and sharing in mutual interests and values provides additional mental health benefits, as articulated by Irvin D. Yalom (1931- ). Yalom wrote about the Universality of group membership. He believed that groups offered the opportunity for members to feel they are not alone or unique in their concerns, feelings and experiences. During psychotherapy, clients often enter therapy feeling that they are all alone, but in the group, clients hear others share similar problems, concerns, experiences, and other aspects of their lives, and begin to feel that they are not alone. Group affiliation, Yalom suggested, helped to open up personal boundaries and decrease an individual’s sense of isolation.
After the age of 50 we can anticipate a gradual loss in flexibility, coordination and muscle mass. Exercise is imperative because it can slow the aging process if we concentrate on key areas of loss. Exercise can also reverse some of the negative effects of the aging process.
The verdict has been rendered. Weight training can help maintain muscle mass and cardio exercises, such as walking, can strengthen the heart and improve mobility. Mild to moderate exercise promotes energy, happiness and sound sleep. Defying the odds, some people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s are out there running marathons and becoming body-builders. It is never too late to embrace a program of exercise and wellness. It begins with that very first step.
Maxim W. Furek, MA, CADC, ICADC is passionately researching the essence of happiness. His rich background includes aspects of psychology, addictions, mental health and music journalism. His book Sheppton: The Myth, Miracle & Music explores the psychological horror and eventual survival experienced by two entombed coal miners. Learn more at shepptonmyth.com