Aging happens to all of us, but being sedentary and unfit is a choice – and is unhealthy (not to mention uncomfortable, inconvenient, debilitating, boring, painful, lonely, expensive, and deadly).
Much of the messaging we hear from media and doctors runs along the lines of “just expect that you’ll get weak, dull-minded, and frail as you get old.” But if you look closely at research about aging you will see that most of the evidence for that kind of thinking is correlational. That is, it does not show that “aging causes weakness,” for instance, rather “it’s very common for older people to be weak.” It doesn’t just happen – we do it to ourselves, mostly.
That messaging is damaging, not just on the technicality that it’s inaccurate, but because it causes people to give up, and accept as inevitable some very unhealthy conditions that they themselves could act to remedy. Worse, it can discourage people from participating in activities they would enjoy, and that would make them healthier and happier, out of fear they might injure themselves. You should be a very skeptical consumer of reports and articles based on the assumption that we fall apart as we age. Yes, we do accumulate injuries as we go through life, and each of us has challenges to work with, but we should no more quit living an active life and resign ourselves to an easy chair in front of the TV than a young person should. You would not permit a child to live like that, and you shouldn’t either.
Being active, staying strong, and maintaining or improving flexibility and endurance, along with getting outdoors, and participating in challenging activities with others, are good practices for our physical health, and mental and happiness. Many of the problems our culture associates with aging – back and joint pain, loss of balance, memory and cognition problems, depression, and so on – can be prevented or improved by simply being active.
Here are some good articles on research on exercise and aging. No matter what stage of life you are in, pay attention, and get moving. If you’re lucky, you’ll be old someday.
Sitting-Rising Test Provides Feedback on Health Status
Many people – and health professionals – focus on (and sometimes treat with drugs) cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and other measures of health. But folks often neglect their basic musculoskeletal strength, flexibility, and endurance. This simple test of strength and flexibility is one way to see how you are doing, so you can take action to improve, if needed. It was conceived by a doctor seeking a way to give his patients information about their health, and get them into action to improve it, rather than seeing them decline.
“Sit. Stand. Repeat. This little trick — a deceptively simple measure of flexibility and strength — can predict who will live longer and whose lives will be cut short, according to a study by Brazilian physician Claudio Gil Araujo. He uses the test with athletes, but he also uses it to lay out the stakes with patients: To live longer, they must get moving and maintain muscle and balance.“
This article from Discover Magazine, “Simple Sitting Test Predicts How Long You’ll Live – Flexibility, balance and muscle strength are key indicators of longevity,” gives the background of the test, and clear instructions (with images) for how to do it. And here is the abstract of the paper discussed in that article, “Ability to sit and rise from the floor as a predictor of all-cause mortality,” in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.
Of course, this study is also correlational – it doesn’t attempt to prove causality. It says “people who have trouble doing this are more likely to die sooner,” but it’s equally valid to say “people who are likely to die sooner are likely to have trouble doing this.” It does not mean that if you master this one movement you will live longer. However, it is reasonable to assume that people who have weak core and leg muscles, and poor balance or coordination, could be in that state due to unhealthy inactivity, and also could be less likely to become active. They might avoid going for a hike, or taking a dance class. They might find activity taxing and uncomfortable, and so avoid it. And so they could easily find themselves in a downward spiral of weakness and inactivity. That absolutely is proven to be a recipe for disaster, and can be stopped and reversed. The point of the test is to give people a clear picture of where they are headed, and the consequences of remaining on that path.
A Fall Can Kill You. There are Ways to Avoid Falling.
This article from National Public Radio (NPR) Health News, “Broken Hips: Preventing A Fall Can Save Your Life,” discusses some approaches to preventing falls. Also listen to the audio (the link is at the top of that page), which is a little more thorough, and much more vivid than the article alone.
“Falls are the leading cause of death from an injury for older Americans. For women, it’s especially bad: Three quarters of those with hip fractures are women. For many, the broken hip starts a chain reaction … When you’re bedridden or hospitalized, your odds of developing everything from bed sores to pneumonia increase dramatically.”
The report focuses on therapies like balance training, and situational awareness, which are definitely important. It does not discuss strength and quickness, though – especially core and leg strength – which can also enable people to regain their balance after a stumble, and avoid what might have been a fall.
“More than 90 percent of hip fractures are caused by falls. But falls can be prevented. Common-sense steps like removing rugs, installing better lighting, and getting an updated prescription for your glasses are a good start. So is addressing the physical and psychological side to falls. It might sound silly, but it turns out that people who are afraid of falling are actually more likely to fall.”
“The greatest risk for older people who’ve fallen is that they’ll simply stop exercising,” according to Chris Ray, director of the Center for Healthy Living and Longevity at UT-Arlington.
An aside, not addressed in the report: In Aikido (a Japanese martial art), we learn how to fall. We practice getting down to the ground safely, and back up again. These skills are critical not only to avoiding injury (because face it, most of us will fall from time to time), but also in reducing fear, because we know we can handle a fall OK. If people are less fearful about the possibility of falling, they can be free to be more active – and that can mean anything from a walk around the block to traveling the world.