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Exercise - The Anti-Aging Weapon

Regular physical activity promotes healthy aging. Inactivity, on the other hand, worsens almost all diseases and conditions that lead to physical disability. The Archives of Internal Medicine recently devoted their entire journal one month to show the health benefits of regular exercise and healthy eating for successful aging and general well-being.

The article pointed out that regular physical activity is helpful for preventing or managing osteoarthritis, falls, hip fractures, cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, declining mental ability, and obesity. All of these conditions significantly lower quality of life and raise the risk for independence later in life. Here is a quick summary of 4 of these articles on exercise and aging:

Better health: In a 15-year study by Harvard on 13,535 women, researchers found that if women were active at midlife their odds for exceptional health at age 70 was significantly better. In this study, anyone who reached age 70 without chronic disease, impairment in cognitive function, or physical disability was considered a successful-aging person. In the study, those women who walked regularly had a 90% increase in their chances of aging successfully compared to those who didn't walk regularly. If they did "very brisk" walking, their odds for successful aging were 2.7 times higher than the non-walkers.

Fracture risk and falls: In another study, 227 women were assigned to an 18-month exercise program consisting of two 60-minute exercise programs including aerobic, strength, and balance training plus two home-training sessions focused on strength and flexibility. A control group followed a minimal exercise program (one 60-minute session per week of low-intensity activity). After 1.5 years of follow-up, the higher exercise group had half as many fracture incidences compared to the control group. This is very encouraging as falls are a major concern and expense among older women. Interestingly, both groups saw a drop in their 10-year coronary heart disease risk. Even a very moderate increase in activity was beneficial for heart health.

Cognitive impairment: A third study found that regular physical activity significantly reduced the incidence of cognitive impairment after two years of regular physical activity, compared to a control group with no exercise. The researchers concluded that the regular exercise directly improved blood flow to the brain and even stimulated growth of new blood vessels in the brain, thus improving cognitive ability. What exercise does for the heart also occurs in the brain - both are strengthened in their ability to provide better function.

Quality of life: The last study looked at exercise and quality of life. Researchers wanted to see if regular exercise produced measurable improvements in the quality of life among people age 65 and older. After 6 months of moderate exercising (doing Tai Chi for 30 minutes 4 times per week) the researchers were able to see an improvement in health-related quality of life issues and activities of daily living (ADL), which included the ability to walk and take care of themselves.

During the same time, a control group met weekly and talked about ways to improve communication skills, but did no physical activity. They experienced a decline in quality of life issues and ADL abilities. The researchers concluded that exercise programs can slow the decline in health-related quality of life that happens with most seniors as they grow older.

What's the bottom line? If you want to enjoy better health as you grow older, prevent disease, lower your risk of fractures, and improve your quality of life, it is important to maintain an active lifestyle. Starting activity early in life brings the greatest health rewards but starting at any age has significant benefits.

Source: Duke Medicine HealthNews, May 2010.

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