My grandparents are snowbirds...they split their year between sunny Florida and sunny Massachusetts, avoiding the cold and snow at all costs. So, in the summer when they are back North, I try to see them as much as possible. Besides just truly enjoying their company (sprinkled with a liberal dose of my Mem's sweets) I am compelled by a need to absorb all of the wisdom, insight and advice they are so generously full of. While we don't always agree on musical taste, political ideology, or the merits of a mini-van, we often pass many hours simply chatting about thus-and-such, with an abundance of laughter and, sometimes, tears. They are both turning 79 years old this year, and I feel so lucky to have them both in my life. My Mémère and Pépère have been in amazing health throughout their lives. Besides the usual aches and pains of aging, they have stayed very active - walking, golfing, traveling - with very little medication or particular notice to how vivacious they really were. This isn't particularly shocking given that they were both elite water skiers when they were younger!
So, when we were chatting one afternoon, I was somewhat surprised when my Pep said, "So, this working out stuff. That's not really gonna do anything for me except make me sore at this point, right? I'm too old to make new muscle..."
I was sort of taken aback. Not only do I know that to not be true (because up until that point, demonstrating the benefits of exercising into old age was pretty much my job), but I was really shocked that they didn't know how great exercise was for aging muscles! Why wasn't their doctor telling them that staying as active as possible is truly the serum for healthy aging?!
Interestingly, this is exactly the new line of research I am investigating at the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, MA. As it turns out, doctors are pretty crappy at having conversations with their patients (of any age) about exercise. In fact, a recent survey found that only one in three patients receive advice from their physician about staying physically active (although, in MD's defense, that number is 43% higher than it was in a previous survey...eep!).
But given the evidence, it is imperative that physicians talk to their patients about moving their bodies - particularly older adults. In a collaborative study recently released by my previous lab - the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Lab at Tufts University - simply walking could decrease risk of disability by almost 20%!! And these weren't healthy-ish older people...the participants were 70-89 years old and pretty frail to start with.
“These were people who began the study with health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, and previous heart attacks and strokes,” said coauthor Roger Fielding, a senior scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, “far from the healthier populations typically enrolled in clinical trials.”
So, there is no reason that any older person shouldn't be encouraged to at least start walking at some point during the day. This is really huge because a recent study by the CDC says that,
"...nearly three-quarters of older men and about two-thirds of women over age 64 are overweight or obese, making them more likely to have to deal with diabetes, arthritis and impaired mobility."
And, in sort of an amazing testament to the vitality of the human body, it seems like it's never to late to start. Even people in their mid-life may feel like they're too far down the road to start exercising. But, a recent study found that even small increases in healthy life habits as you age (like exercising) can have a huge impact on chronic disease development (specifically heart disease) later in life. And the great thing is, many Medicare supplement plans will actually pay for older people to join a gym or take exercise classes in the community - which, definitely beats the average $80,000/year a nursing home costs.
So, my answer to my Pep's incredulity about exercise was, "...absolutely not! Every step counts! If you do the work, you will get stronger, just like everyone else!"
...hmmmm...sounds like something he may have said to me at some point...