If you could do one thing to improve your longevity, your physical health and your state of mind as you age, it’s as simple as this: move.
Studies have shown regular exercise is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, several forms of cancer, depression and dementia in older people. But only about one in four older Americans exercises regularly, researchers for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found, and nearly half get no exercise at all.
We’ve all seen the local TV news features about the90-year-old running his 20th marathon. But those are outliers; exercising can be as easy as getting up from the couch and walking around the house and as cheap as a pair of sweatpants and athletic shoes. The sheer inertia of a sedentary lifestyle, however, often prevents people from taking that first step.
“A lot of the patients I see in my clinic are very sedentary,” said Dr. Ronan Factora, a geriatrician at the Cleveland Clinic. “It’s a lot easier to take a pill than to go out and take a walk. And sometimes it’s even a struggle for me to get my patients to stand up and walk around and not sit down for long periods of time.”
That’s despite the fact that even a little regular exercise can go a long way. Cardiovascular activity in particular—walking, running, biking, swimming—has remarkably salutary effects on all aspects of physical and mental health.
“Cardio helps to lower your blood pressure, it helps to get your sugars under better control, it helps to get your cholesterol under better control, it helps to improve your body’s response to stresses and builds up your endurance over time,” Dr. Factora explained. “All of that is linked with [lower risk of] heart disease and heart attacks.”
A massive 2016 study of 1.4 million U.S. and European participants over 11 years conducted by researchers at the National Cancer Institute and published in JAMA Internal Medicine also found that physically active people had materially lower risk of getting 13 different kinds of cancer, including esophageal, liver, lung and colon cancer, as well as leukemia and myeloma.
Exercise also may help stave off or alleviate depression. “For some people it works as well as antidepressants,” said Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Exercise “spurs the release of proteins called neurotrophic or growth factors, which cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. The improvement in brain function makes you feel better,” Harvard Health Publishing wrote.
Researchers found that aerobic, or cardiovascular, exercise may increase the size of the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which shrinks in later life, leading to higher risk of dementia. ”Aerobic exercise training is effective at reversing hippocampal volume loss in late adulthood, which is accompanied by improved memory function,” according to a 2011 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“What’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” Dr. Factora said. “It’s really hard to point to one specific drug that has so many benefits compared to cardiovascular exercise.”
How much cardiovascular exercise do you need?
Government health agencies and medical societies agree people over 65 should do 150 minutes (2 ½ hours) a week of moderate-intensity activity, such as hiking, pushing a lawn mower or riding a bike, or 75 minutes a week of high-intensity activity, such as fast swimming, jogging or singles tennis. And up to a point, the more you do, the better off you’ll be,
In addition, doctors recommend doing strength training two days a week to keep your muscles toned. ”You need those muscles in good shape to maintain your posture, your balance, help reduce your risk of falls. It’s linked to maintaining your independence as much as possible,” Dr. Factora said. “Even just using your large muscle groups and doing the resistance training two or three times a week, that’s going to be enough. You don’t have to look like a bodybuilder.”
And you don’t have to be a marathoner to do cardiovascular exercise, either. In fact, people who haven’t been active should begin slowly. “You have to start small, build up your endurance over time. If you want to start taking a walk, and you get tired really easily, start with five minutes,” said Dr. Factora. “And then, just build up the amount of time that you continue to be active before you take a break and work towards 30 minutes.”
“The key thing is to pick something that you’re going to enjoy,” he continued. “Pick something that you like to do and stick to it.”
Exercise really is a natural wonder drug. So, get started and get moving, people.