Exercising and the aging body

I won’t waste your valuable time discussing how good exercise is for your heart and your weight.  You don’t need to hear again how it decreases your risk for all kinds of disease including but not limited to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity and depression.  You probably don’t need to be told again that people who exercise on a regular basis live longer.  (You already know all that but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t slide it in.)  I am certain that you also know that beneath your skin, there are bones and muscles that enable you to do everything you do, all day, every day.  Still, we could all use a little reminding that there are some pretty awesome systems at work that are keeping you upright and able to move it, move it.  We need to take care of them.  You can see the wrinkles, the gray on your head and the hair in places you can’t believe.  What you can’t see is that …

1.  Bones – with age, your bones start to shrink in size and density which partly explains why older people get shorter.  To keep your bones as big as you can (insert juvenile giggle) and as strong as you need them to be, participate in weight bearing exercise.  Walking, running, climbing stairs and of course, lifting weights are all great for your bones.  Activities like swimming and biking are not considered weight-bearing.

2.  Muscles – as you age, your skeletal muscles – the ones you can control – begin to lose strength and mass.  It is estimated that between the ages of 20 and 90, your muscle mass decreases by 50%.  While you can’t maintain your muscles the way they were in your twenties, you can slow down the rate of muscle loss and strengthen muscles that have become weak and flabby.  Or, you can just avoid sleeveless shirts.

3.  Tendons and ligaments –  Tendons connect muscle to bone; ligaments connect bone to bone.  The chemistry of these tissues changes as you age, decreasing their water content.  This makes them more brittle, less pliable and more prone to injury.  Stretching exercises can counteract these changes.  Yoga, Pilates or just simple, daily toe-touching will help a great deal.

4.  Joints – because of the changes to tendons and ligaments, joints become stiffer and less flexible.  The water content of cartilage (think of it as the cushion in the joints) decreases as you age making the joints more susceptible to stress placed on them.  While exercise is critical for healthy aging, it is also important that you are smart about the types of exercise you do.  Physical activity that is hard on the joints may have to be replaced by simpler but just as effective exercises like swimming, yoga or walking.

5. Balance – for many people, balance deteriorates as they age.  There are different theories but the most plausible is that a more sedentary lifestyle basically de-conditions your sense of balance.  In addition to strength training, balance training can do wonders for protecting you against falls.  (Being very, very careful on the ice couldn’t hurt either so, stock up on salt if you live in the Northeast.  It is going to snow again.)  Remember, the older you are, the more disastrous a fall can be.  Like I just said, your bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles are getting more and more brittle and may be hanging on for dear life.  A simple trip can result in a in-patient rehab stay.  I have to admit that on some days, that actually sounds appealing, like a little vacation just for me.

Even if you are thin and look great, even if your bad cholesterol is low, your good cholesterol is high, your blood pressure is optimal, you eat well, have never smoked, drink little and have no family history of cancer, even you, you lucky dog,  have to exercise regularly.  On a good day, I fit into one or two of those categories.  With the exception of some embarrassing New Year’s Eve dancing, I have not moved since mid-December.  No time like the present.  I am off to catch a yoga class.  It won’t be pretty but every little bit helps.

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