“We must move our bodies or we begin to lose them… If we’re sluggish when young, we sacrifice full, independent, satisfying lives as we age. We grow frail when we might have been hearty, and sick when we might have been well”. Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times “Phys Ed” Columnist.
Here’s a sobering thought. The more you sit, the more likely you are to be disabled after 60. I can attest to this insight from my years working as a health and fitness instructor at a retirement community in Davis, CA. Most residents who attend my classes live independently, but have musculoskeletal issues that compromise their movement. Ironically, my most popular fitness classes are conducted while sitting in a chair. Many come to my classes stooped over their walkers or with an uneven gait that makes them susceptible to falls, the leading cause of disability and death for this age group. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a fire engine or EMS vehicle parked out front of the lobby entrance, often responding to someone who has fallen. Sometimes, it’s not because the person has injured themselves, but because they lack the strength or mobility to get themselves back up off the floor.
On the other hand, I’ll occasionally meet a resident or couple who walk more confidently and with pep in their step. Some take my advanced classes that require getting down and up off the floor, but they usually work out on their own, swimming repeated laps, or breaking a sweat on the treadmill, or strength training their muscles in the gym. I also will see them regularly walking or riding their bikes outside. These robust and energetic retirees did not all of a sudden become physically active once they retired. More than likely, they had been active most of their lives and have continued this lifestyle into retirement. They realized early in life that the more they moved, the better they felt. Studies have shown that there’s a direct correlation between psychological well-being and physical activity. It turns out that being happy and optimistic might actually encourage a person to be physically active throughout their lifespan.
If you’re healthier and happier when you’re regularly moving your body, especially outdoors, why would most Americans spend 93 percent of their lives indoors and 70 percent of each day sitting? I’ve written at length about the physical, mental and financial toll a sedentary lifestyle takes on individuals and families, but not from the perspective of an aging demographic. Older adults are actually the most sedentary segment of society—they spend over 80 percent of their waking days sitting. At the same time, increasing evidence is telling us that sedentary behavior is detrimental to our physical and mental health. Among other things, it’s linked with depression, chronic diseases, frailty, social isolation and premature death. See the illustration “Don’t Just Sit There” that shows exactly what goes wrong with our bodies when we sit for most of our day.
Two of the most common musculoskeletal disorders in older adults are osteoporosis (loss of bone density) and sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass). Key risk factors are lifestyle habits such as smoking, alcohol consumption, poor nutrition and lack of physical activity. People who spend a lot of time sitting have a higher risk of developing these disorders than do those who are more physically active.
Women are more susceptible to osteoporosis than men because they usually have lower bone density and menopause reduces estrogen, a bone protective hormone. Broken bones from osteoporosis cause serious health problems and disability in older adults. Prevention starts when you are younger, but you can still take steps today to build bone mass and prevent bone loss. Eating a healthy diet while getting calcium and vitamin D is important, but so are regular weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises.
Sarcopenia or muscle atrophy can start in our 30s or early 40s in response to prolonged periods of inactivity. As we grow older and pass through midlife, years of sedentary behavior can accelerate muscle loss. A recent study found that low muscle mass in older men in particular is often associated with cardiovascular disease. However, when men enter middle age with plenty of muscle, this lowers the risk of developing heart disease by as much as 81 percent.
If you think you’re too old or out of shape to start strength-training and reverse muscle and bone loss, think again. No matter your age, you can build muscle, enhance bone density and restore your strength and mobility from years of being sedentary, but you have to start now! This is a plea to some of my friends who are on the cusp of retirement, yet have bought in to the myth that it’s fine to do less physical activity the older you get. The truth is just the opposite! As you age, it becomes more important to exercise regularly to prevent declining physical and mental health, as well as a dependency on others and a stressed healthcare system to keep you alive.
On the other hand, if we start taking better care of our bodies and health today, our retirement years will be so much more enjoyable. How well we move and how often we move throughout our lives will determine how much we interact with the world and build relationships with others. The more you move, the better your body will function, leading to a larger purpose in life to go along with a better quality of life, long into retirement!