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More Evidence Physical Activity a Plus for Seniors

Seniors who start exercising even at age 85 can live longer and healthier lives.

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If you need proof that exercise is a fountain of youth, check out the mounting research. If a senior loved one isn't convinced, call a friend – or CAREGiver – to provide that extra encouragement.

Q. My adult daughter is constantly after me to exercise more, but at age 85 I just don't see the point. It's all I can do just to keep up care of my home. Do you think it's a good idea?

Yes, but don't take my word for it. Here's more evidence that physical activity may delay the spiral of decline that begins with inability to perform daily activities and continues through illness and death.

And the research, which appeared in Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals, shows that seniors who start exercising even at age 85 can live longer and healthier lives.*

Researchers at Hebrew University Medical Center and Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School, Jerusalem, studied 1,861 individuals born in 1920 and 1921. Participants underwent assessments in their homes at ages 70, 78 and 85 years, during which they were asked about their physical activity levels.

Those who performed less than four hours per week of physical activity were considered sedentary, while those who exercised about four hours weekly, performed vigorous activities such as jogging or swimming at least twice weekly or who engaged in regular physical activity (for example, walking at least an hour daily) were considered physically active.

When compared with those who were sedentary, individuals who were physically active were:

  • 12 percent less likely to die between ages 70 and 78,
  • 15 percent less likely to die between ages 78 and 85 and
  • 17 percent less likely to die between ages 85 and 88.

These active seniors also were more likely to remain independent and experience fewer declines in their ability to perform daily tasks, report less loneliness and were less likely to have poor self-rated health.

The benefits associated with physical activity were observed not only in those who maintained an existing level of physical activity, but also in those who began exercising between ages 70 and 85, according to the research.

In another study recently conducted by Buck Institute faculty member Simon Melov, Ph.D., and Mark Tarnopolsky, M.D., Ph.D., of McMaster University Medical Center in Hamilton, Ontario, exercise – specifically resistance training – actually rejuvenates muscle tissue in healthy senior citizens.

The study measured gene-expression profiles, a sort of molecular fingerprint of aging. Exercise resulted in a remarkable reversal of the genetic fingerprint back to levels similar to those seen in the younger adults. "We were very surprised by the results of the study," researcher Melov said.

"We expected to see gene expressions that stayed fairly steady in the older adults. The fact that their ‘genetic fingerprints' so dramatically reversed course gives credence to the value of exercise, not only as a means of improving health, but of reversing the aging process itself, which is an additional incentive to exercise as you get older."

It's long been known by medical science that one reason people lose muscle mass and grow frail is because of the reduced ability of seniors to respond to the stimulus of the hormone insulin. Another study has found that a drop in insulin response in seniors can be modified by moderate exercise.

Experiments at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) and the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, conducted on 13 healthy volunteers in their late 60s showed that 45 minutes of walking 20 hours before exposure to insulin restored the muscle-growth-stimulating effects of the hormone to levels comparable to those seen in normal young adults.

What's more, researchers have discovered that six hours or more a week of strenuous recreational activity, no matter what your age, may reduce the risks of invasive breast cancer by 23 percent. That report was published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, based on a survey of over 15,000 women.

By enlisting the help of a family member or agency such as Home Instead to assist around your home, you would likely have more time and energy for exercise and the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle.

Also consider walking with a buddy to motivate you and make the time go more quickly. Perhaps a neighbor or friend from church is looking for someone to walk with as well. If you don't know anyone to join you, consider calling Home Instead®. The company's CAREGiversSM help seniors in their homes and many provide a companionship service that includes participating in hobbies and other interests of older adults. CAREGivers are matched with seniors of similar interests.

Best wishes for continued good health.

*For more about this study, log on to

Last revised: July 15, 2011

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