It was thought that perhaps it was better to exercise moderately or lightly in order to reduce the chance of injury. Exercise proponents feared that older adults would find themselves in the emergency room with orthopedic injuries.
It is true that if there are any medical conditions that would make vigorous exercise unsafe, then moderate or low-intensity exercises are excellent options at any age. But if an individual has no contraindications to vigorous exercise, research shows that people can enjoy it throughout their lifespan. Regular exercise provides a myriad of health benefits in older adults, including improvements in blood pressure, diabetes, lipid profile, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and neurocognitive function.
In one study, researchers followed about 300 runners and 150 controls (non-exercisers) aged 50 and over for twenty years and kept track of their exercise history, body mass index, and disability levels, which included evaluating their ability to perform every day tasks like walking, dressing, grooming, etc. If any participants died during the study, the cause of death was also recorded. The results include the following interesting data about both study groups:
- At the beginning of the study, the runners weighed less and were less likely to be smokers.
- Over the twenty-year period, runners went from running for 4 hours per week to about 76 minutes per week. Remember, at the start they were all age 50 or older.
- While the runners group did have higher disability scores than controls, the onset of disability was later for runners. Much later: about 16 years.
- Nineteen years into the study, 15% of the runners had died while 34% of the controls had died. After adjusting for confounding factors, runners showed greater likelihood of living longer.
- The differences in longevity and disability between the two groups became greater with time, and continued along that path as participants approached their 80th birthday.
Overall, vigorous exercisers at even these advanced ages tend to stay healthier than non-exercisers. The fact that the differences became greater over time shows that the health benefits of vigorous exercise are greater than previously thought. Specifically, the exercisers have fewer early deaths due to cancer, neurological diseases, and infections.
Even more interesting is that the specific activity of running in older ages did not bring with it a flood of orthopedic injuries as feared. Older people who have been active for many years seem to exhibit generally enhanced bone density. Running as an activity does not appear to be associated with greater rates of osteoarthritis in the elderly and runners do not require more knee replacement procedures than non-runners.
Running in and of itself may be a good high-intensity choice for older exercisers because it involves moving straight ahead in a repeated motion. Other high intensity activities such as football, soccer or basketball involve unnatural positions and may place more stress on the body and the joints. Additional good choices include swimming and cycling, and much recent research has shown the health and bone strength benefits of regular weight lifting for people at all ages.
Older people often cite similar obstacles to getting started on an exercise program. Here are some common obstacles and ideas for overcoming them:
Barrier: I’m too old to learn something new.
Approach: Start slowly with exercises that are easy to accomplish. Walking short distances can lead to running short distances, which can lead to running longer distances.
Barrier: Exercise hurts.
Approach: Start slowly and be sure to cross-train. Doing multiple activities, such as running one day, resting the next, and then a cycling session the following day, give your body a break and develop better overall strength and coordination.
Barrier: I’m afraid of injuring myself.
Approach: Work with a personal trainer to ensure proper clothing, technique, and environment.