It may be hard to believe, but until 25 years ago most doctors thought vigorous exercise caused a body to wear out, or age, faster. One of the top doctors credited with causing an about-face in that thinking: Kenneth Cooper often referred to as “the father of aerobic exercise”.
Today we know that the key to keep body functions working optimally is to keep going, to maintain a regular and vigorous fitness regime throughout life.
A lifelong fitness plan that stresses bones, builds muscle strength and enhances endurance, coordination and flexibility, can slow, if not bypass, some effects we often associate with aging, and many chronic diseases can be avoided entirely.
For instance, physical conditioning has a profound preventive effect on lung function. Starting at age 30, the ability of our bodies to extract the oxygen we need from the air we breathe begins to slow at a rate of about 1 per cent a year. However, at any age, the conditioned person can use oxygen more efficiently than an untrained person. Thus, in spite of that annual 1-per cent decline, the trained person of 70 has the same ability to pull oxygen into the lungs as an untrained 30-year-old.
Another major benefit of exercise is that it may diminish one’s risk of adult-onset diabetes, the type also known as non-insulin-dependent diabetes that usually strikes after age 40. Exercise increases the number of insulin-binding sites in muscles, and since more glucose is then taken into the muscles, the glucose level in the blood goes down. Diabetes, which has nerve-damaging effects, hastens aging by putting people at higher risk for heart disease and blindness, among other complications.
The benefits of maintaining an optimal fitness level are also obvious in preventing osteoporosis, a condition caused by severe bone loss that is considered epidemic in the over-60 population, particularly among women. While the effects of this disorder – loss of height, stooped shoulders, susceptibility to fractures – are not usually apparent until late in life, the bone loss leading up to them may actually begin as early as the teenage years. Although everyone begins to lose bone around 35, you can build up your bone mass significantly in preparation.
Bones, like muscles, say stressed – that is, they must be regularly subjected to weight-bearing activity such as walking, jogging, or playing a racquet sport. To understand the full impact of activity on the lifelong and continuous bone-remodeling process – the absorption of old bone cells and the formation of replacement cells – look at what happens when a person isn’t active at all: For instance, if you were to do nothing but rest in bed for a month, you could lose as much as 4 per cent of your bone mass.
The best-known benefits of the active life are its effects on the heart. The accepted wisdom is that cardiac output declines with age, but it’s not necessarily so. It’s true that the rate of an older heart is lower and the blood-filling volume is higher, but the healthy heart of an active, older person is able to maintain a consistently high output of blood, even during vigorous exercise.
What kind of exercise?
An aerobic workout can reduce your heartbeats-per-minute and thereby the amount of work your heart has to slog out over a lifetime. Your aim should be three to five weekly half-hour to hour-long sessions of continuous, rhythmic exercise that primarily calls on your major muscles – legs, buttocks and back. Running, brisk walking, swimming and cycling are the top options.
Not surprisingly, the guideline that will cue you in to the right aerobic pitch is your pulse – what your heart’s doing. It should be working within your “target heart range” – 70 to 85 per cent of your maximum heart rate, figured by subtracting your age from 220. The longer you work within that range in your workout, the greater the cardiovascular benefits. The major news: Don’t go overboard. Orthopedic problems increase with the number of aerobic workouts a week. Stick to every-other-day workouts as the best way to avoid them.
Slowing the muscle drain
Every decade you lose from 3 to 5 per cent of higher-calorie-burning lean muscle and replace it with lower-calorie-consuming fat, especially in leg and trunk muscles. Thirty to 45 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week can head off the fat accumulation, but to combat the muscle loss, you need to supplement your aerobics with two to three weekly sessions of calisthenics or weight training, either on machines or with free weights. If you’re just starting, work with a weight-lifting pro. Weights or calisthenics are particularly important to cyclists and swimmers. Neither sport places stress on bones; hence, neither can protect as effectively against osteoporosis.
Preserving flexibility with stretching
Whether you’re trundling off to aerobics or layering on lean muscle with weights, you should stretch for at least five minutes before and after each workout to maintain the flexibility that otherwise declines with age.
The risks of heavy exercise
Because oxygen plays a role in increased free-radical damage, does heavy exercise increase the risk of cellular aging? Some researchers believe so. Dr. Irene Schnauss, of Munich, Germany, studied this phenomenon in mountain climbers on K-2, the world’s second-highest mountain, in the Tibetan Himalayas. She set up a laboratory at 16,000 feet, and studied the climbers as they attempted to ascend K-2. Dr. Schnauss found that when the climbers’ diets were supplemented with vitamin E they suffered much less free-radical damage during heavy exercise than when their diets were not supplemented with the vitamin. This example of extreme oxygen stress indicates that antioxidant nutrients can help defend against free-radical damage during times of significant exposure, although research has not yet determined whether they will help the body resist free-radical damage under more normal circumstances.
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