Author: Sheri R. Colberg, PhD, FACSM
In the recent past we have discussed how to tell if joint problems (e.g. overuse injuries) are due to physical activity, aging or diabetes, but let’s focus on aging itself- even this time. Of course, we would all like to slow down normal aging or even reverse some aspects of it, but is it possible?
There is a normal decline in most of our physiological systems that begins around age 25 and continues over time. While some of the bodily changes that people undergo over time are due to normal aging, many are caused by either obsolescence or a medical condition. We can primarily perform physical activity not to completely stop the decline but rather to slow down its speed (i.e. its downward trajectory).
For example, bone density slowly declines over time, but prolonged bed rest, a sedentary lifestyle, and weightless environments (like being on the space station) all accelerate bone mineral loss. Your goal should be to slow the rate of decline with physical activity, dietary improvements, and possibly medication to keep your bones from reaching a critical fracture point before reaching the end of your natural lifespan.
In many areas of your body, you can slow aging or possibly reverse premature aging through physical activity. The main areas where you can have an impact are:
- Heart: Although people joke that they have a finite number of heartbeats, therefore exercise should be avoided, the reverse is true. We can have a finite number of beats, but regular physical activity probably increases that number. Interestingly, the heart is one of the few muscles in the body that is constantly exercised, and it needs an adequate blood supply to fuel its contractions. Therefore, physical training can increase the diameter of the coronary arteries and blood flow to the heart muscle, even if your coronary arteries are blocked. Resistance training, in particular, appears to increase coronary blood flow and is recommended even in people who have been diagnosed with coronary artery disease.
- BONE: Be sure to include both weight-bearing or bone “stress” activities, if possible, to stimulate bone mineral deposition and slow loss over time. Carrying weight on your bones creates stress that stimulates the bones to become stronger, as does the pulling of tendons on attached bones as muscles contract. In many cases, appropriate activities include walking and other weight-bearing activities, resistance training (upper and lower body), and whole-body vibration training.
- Joints: Resistance exercise targeting the muscles around joints with osteoarthritis can reduce joint pain by reducing some of the stress on joint surfaces, tendons, and ligaments. Include flexibility and resistance exercises to keep joints more flexible, surrounding muscles strong, and improved mobility. Strengthening the muscles around the replacement joints is also crucial for the long-term success of these new joints.
- Muscles of the trunk: As a part of the body, the abdominal, abdominal, lower back, and lower body muscles are essential for standing and balance. Use targeted resistance exercises to build and maintain muscle mass. Also, practice balance and agility exercises to improve balance skills and prevent falls. In older adults, working on functional fitness is essential for building strength and maintaining flexibility for basic personal care and independent living.
- Ankle muscles: Ankles are complex joints, and many problems arise when weak muscles allow them to roll too far in or out. Work on keeping your ankles strong to maintain balance, prevent falls, and prevent fractures of the bones in the foot and inflammation of the tendons around the ankles. Include a series of ankle strengthening exercises in your weekly routine and work on keeping the ankle flexible to prevent injuries and falls.
- Eye muscles: Most people over 50 need longer arms (to hold things away from their eyes for reading). So instead of wearing reading glasses or bifocals, try some eye exercises to maintain the strength and mobility of the eye muscles responsible for near reading and far vision. These include simple exercises like rotating the eyes in different directions and alternating between focusing near and far, back and forth.
- Pelvic muscles: As mentioned in a previous article, pelvic floor muscles (or Kegel exercises) can keep these muscles strong and help prevent bladder leakage and stress urinary incontinence common with aging. A beneficial side effect of Kegel exercises is greater sexual pleasure, so why not give them a try? To start with, practice stopping your urine halfway and then releasing it.
- Brain: Physical activity helps slow the rate of decline of the brain (both cognitive abilities and memory) by ensuring adequate blood flow to the brain and by stimulating various areas involved in involuntary movements. Try doing simple memory exercises (like memorizing lists and repeating them later) and regular physical activity to keep your brain healthy and lower your risk of dementia. Better yet, do memory exercises while exercising for the best results.
However, the slow decline of the nervous system over time, as seen in slower reaction times, is not preventable. The best thing you can do for your nerve function is to eat plenty of healthy foods that are rich in essential vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients and continue to be regularly active to slow the decline of everything else.
Physical activity is truly one of the best tools we have for improving the quality of our life as we age and preventing declines due to inactivity and diseases related to a poor lifestyle, regardless of the length of our life. So here’s how to use exercise to reach 100 and beyond, with faculties intact and (almost) fully functional bodies!
Sheri R. Colberg, PhD, is the author of An Athlete’s Guide to Diabetes: Expert Advice on 165 Sports and Activities (the latest edition of the Diabetic Athlete’s Handbook). She is also the author of Diabetes and fitness for dummies, co-edited by Wiley and the ADA. Old Dominion University Emeritus Professor of Exercise Science and internationally recognized expert in the diabetes movement, she has authored 12 books, 30 book chapters and over 420 articles. She received the 2016 American Diabetes Association Outstanding Educator in Diabetes Award. Contact her through her websites (SheriColberg.com and DiabetesMotion.com).
If you have found “Can You Slow Down or Reverse Aging Through Physical Activity?” Helpful, check out other articles by Dr Sheri Colberg here.