Stay Healthy By Not Acting Your Age

Debbie Melvin  |  8/4/2006 9:22:56 PM

Is it possible to age more slowly? You could follow the wisdom of the great philosopher of our time, Lucille Ball, who advised, the secret to staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly and lie about your age.

Satchel Paige, the famous baseball pitcher once asked, how old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are? I once asked that of a great friend of mine, Mrs. Nora Shaw, who at the time had just turned one hundred years old. She was still doing her morning exercises. Why, I remember learning the Macarena from Mrs. Nora when she was in her eighties. In her younger days, of course I mean eighties, Mrs. Nora was my traveling companion on occasion and she surely knew how to have fun and dance. She would tell anyone that staying active played a major role in her longevity and independence.

Many people think the golden years are best spent sitting on the porch sipping lemonade, instead of growing a garden, taking out their own trash or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. That very attitude is what makes older folks, well, old. The less physically active people become as they advance in years, the faster their bodies give out on them. According to the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, inactivity does not necessarily shorten the life span, but it most definitely shortens the health span. That is, a decrease in physical exertion makes people less capable of doing things for themselves at a younger age than necessary. It also makes them more prone to such illnesses as heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis so that the last twenty, thirty or forty years of their lives are often compromised by a combination of bodily complaints and dependency on others.

On the other hand, those over fortyfive who continue to push themselves physically as the years go by have a much better chance of maintaining their vigor, stamina and physical flexibility as well as overall health and therefore of reaching and living through old age self-reliant. The researchers at Tufts say that even if you are already seventy-five years old, feel overburdened with aches and pains, and have long accepted the idea that an energetic lifestyle is over for you, you can still turn things around. How? With exercise. Men and women alike. The researchers say that physical exertion is what keeps aging from becoming synonymous with illness.

Consider just the effect of exercise on muscle mass and strength, both of which decline throughout our adult lives. As people move into middle age, they tend to lose six or seven pounds of muscle, or lean body mass, every decade. That rate accelerates after age fortyfive. Senior citizens who were put on a strength training program with weights at Tufts experienced a twelve percent increase in muscle growth overall. That is as much as could be expected in young people doing the same amount of exercise. With the loss of muscle, weight gain is usually inevitable. But adding muscle mass, or reducing its loss, can compensate for the natural decline in basal metabolic rate, which affects the number of calories burned in a given day.

Improved aerobic capacity increases the amount of air the lungs can take in and raises the level of oxygen that moves from the lungs into the blood. This steps up the heart’s ability to pump oxygen-rich blood to the muscles. The rate at which the oxygenated blood can actually make its way into the muscles is improved. Finally, the ability of the muscles to use the oxygen is enhanced which brings about ease of movement.

Blood sugar tolerance, or the body’s ability to control the level of sugar in the blood is enhanced by exercise as well. Another advantage of an exercise program is that it can raise blood levels of protective, or good HDL cholesterol. Physical exertion can help regulate blood pressure too. Even people who already have hypertension can lower it. There are many other benefits as well.

So what should you expect of yourself. For those who are new to exercise, or reintroducing themselves to it after many years, all the researchers advise for the first several days is twenty minutes of walking divided into two ten-minute sessions. Weight training, which depending on initial strength, may be a matter of lifting no more than a milk carton filled with sand, should not begin until the end of the second week. Even those who are moderately fit are advised to start with only thirty minutes of exercise a day. The American College of Sports Medicine advises all men over 40 and all women over 50 who would like to begin a vigorous training program to undergo a medical exam.

Miriam E. Nelson, PhD, at Tufts, said that much of what is considered to be typical aging is actually the result of a lifelong accumulation of inactivity and poor nutrition.

So, is it possible to age more slowly and live a longer, independent life? I know what Mrs. Nora did, and it worked. I can only hope it will work for me as well.

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