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How To Slow The Aging Process

Your waistband is getting tighter, you haven’t been able to touch your toes in 10 years, and the last time you sprinted after a Frisbee you got winded in a few seconds. Not to mention the fact that your memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be.

But if you’re blaming those changes solely on the fact that you’re over 40, 50 or 60, you could be missing the real cause – and the solution.

Aging is inevitable, but a mounting stack of scientific studies proves that much of the decline we blame on nature is really the result of a sedentary life.

By getting off our duffs, we can slow the downhill slide, delay or prevent debilitating diseases, enhance our quality of life, and even save on health care costs.

The Aging Process
The prospect of gray hair and wrinkles is the least of your worries. Underneath the skin, changes traditionally attributed to aging include a reduction in bone mass, the loss of muscle tissue, and the deterioration of one’s sense of balance.

Cognitive changes – such as impairment in recent memory – are common. Dementia, a progressive decline in cognitive function, is much more serious but fortunately affects only 15 percent of elderly people. In addition, the senses may be diminished by disorders such as macular degeneration, which reduces central vision, and hearing loss.

As we age, our likelihood of developing certain diseases increases. Cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure are much more common among the elderly.

But don’t let this list of woes discourage you. It turns out we do have control over the rate of our demise.

Many of the changes we once saw as inevitable can be slowed or even reversed, researchers say. They’ve even coined the term “sedentary death syndrome” to describe the maladies that are caused or made worse by a couch-potato lifestyle.

America The Sedentary
Healthy People 2010, published by the US. Department of Health and Human Services, lists 10 public-health concerns that need immediate attention. At the top of the list? Physical inactivity. And in the No. 2 spot is obesity.

As of 2005, less than half of U.S. adults got the recommended level of physical activity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One quarter of adults report no leisure-time movement at all. And more than 60 percent of older adults are inactive.

In 2007 more than 63 percent of Americans were overweight or obese. That’s up from 44.7 percent in 1990, an increase of more than 41 percent.

No wonder many people are feeling older.

Effects Of The Couch-Potato Lifestyle
Being overweight is one of the most visible consequences of sedentary life. Let’s consider some others and how they accelerate aging.

A 2002 publication by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports described “sedentary death syndrome,” which is characterized by weak muscles, low bone density, high blood sugar, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, low physical endurance, elevated heart rate and other symptoms.

Conditions caused or worsened by inactivity include many associated with aging, such as:

  • Heart attack
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Cancers of the breast, colon, prostate and pancreas
  • Depression
  • Gallstone disease
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Reduced cognitive function
  • Obesity
  • Osteoporosis
  • Physical frailty
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
And problems such as osteoarthritis and chronic back pain are actually worsened by taking it easy.

Inactive people lose muscle strength at the rate of about 1 percent to 2 percent each year after age 60, and along with that comes a greater risk of falls.

After menopause, women are prone to loss of bone – as much as 1 percent to 2 percent each year.

Can Activity Help Us Age More Gracefully?
You bet. Men and women of all ages who engage in regular activity can prevent or delay serious disease and enhance the quality of life right now. Consider these research findings:

Older people with knee osteoarthritis decreased pain by 43 percent after completing a strength-training program. The exercise also decreased their level of disability.

In a study of Hispanic men and women with diabetes, several months of strength training created dramatic improvements in blood sugar control. The subjects added muscle, lost fat and had less depression.

Sleep disturbances are common among older people, but those who exercise have deeper sleep and wake up less frequently during the night. Better sleep also means better productivity at work.

Physical fitness counteracts the decline in brain density that begins after age 30. A combination of aerobic and strength conditioning provides the best results.

Older patients with major depression felt significant improvement after performing cardio for 30 minutes, three times a week. They also saw improvement in memory, attention/concentration, and the ability to perform intellectual tasks.

Heart failure is the leading cause of hospitalization for people over age 65. But research now shows exercise can “prevent the stiffening of the heart muscle that has been thought to be an inevitable consequence of aging,” says Dr. Benjamin Levine of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Older athletes had more muscular, flexible hearts – almost indistinguishable from those of younger people.

Perhaps most intriguing is a 2008 report published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers examined telomeres – a component of chromosomes – in subjects’ white blood cells. Telomeres shorten over time and act as a marker of biological age.

Less active people had shorter telomeres, and the most active people had telomeres as long as those of people 10 years younger. The scientists concluded that those who follow U.S. government guidelines for physical activity are actually biologically younger than couch potatoes.

Still not convinced? A 2001 consensus statement from a major symposium on health found that “regular physical activity is associated with a reduction in all-cause mortality, fatal and nonfatal total cardiovascular disease, and coronary heart disease” as well as with reduced incidence of obesity, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and osteoporosis.

Healthy People 2010 adds that regular physical activity increases muscle strength and lean muscle mass, improves bone density, reduces body fat, helps in weight control, and improves mood.

Other Payoffs Of The Active Life
The social, personal and economic costs of premature aging are incalculable.

A 2001 report from the Department of Health and Human Services estimated the total cost of obesity alone as $117 billion. The national costs of highly preventable heart disease and diabetes were estimated at $183 billion and $100 billion, respectively.

CDC researchers find that physically active people have lower annual direct medical costs and fewer hospital stays and doctor visits. Also, they use less medication.

If you have employees, you’ll benefit if they’re physically fit. U.S. workplace programs to encourage physical activity tend to reduce health care costs as well as increase productivity.

The Exercise Prescription
Staying younger longer takes an investment of three to four hours a week.

The CDC and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise (not necessarily in one bout) most days of the week and at least two weekly sessions of strength training. Muscle-building exercise should consist of eight to 12 repetitions of six to eight strength movements.

Both are essential: aerobic exercise, or cardio, for your heart and lungs, and strength training to maintain muscle, bone and balance. Both burn calories and help maintain healthy weight.

Moderate aerobic activity means brisk walking, biking casually, dancing, hiking, doing light yard work, or using exercise machines such as treadmills and stationary bikes.

Strength training involves lifting weights, doing calisthenics such as push-ups and sit-ups, using strength equipment in a gym, or doing heavy yard work.

Help Yourself, Help Your Employees
Need to work on your own fitness? Get an exercise buddy. Or opt for an accountability partner to connect with by phone or e-mail. Many fitness Web sites host forums where members offer each other support and encouragement.

Get a dog. You’re more likely to take daily walks when you know your pet needs the exercise, too.

Wear a pedometer. People who track their steps get more exercise than those who don’t. Gradually work up to 10,000 steps a day for significant health benefits.

Schedule exercise in your calendar like any other appointment. Put activity on an equal footing with showering, eating and other daily tasks that you always make time for. If you can’t spare 30 minutes straight, fit in two 15-minute sessions between appointments.

Walk or stand during meetings or phone calls.

Put a treadmill or other piece of exercise equipment in the break room. Encourage employees to use it during lunch hour or breaks – or to go out for short walks.

At company parties, don’t just sit around and eat. Schedule activities like softball or horseshoes.

As a company, sign up for a charity fundraising walk and see how much money you can raise for research on heart disease or cancer.

Talk to the American Cancer Society, which helps businesses create wellness programs.

For More Information
To learn more, visit these Web sites.

HealthierUS.gov, information to help you live a healthier life
www.healthcare.gov

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention physical activity page
www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/physical/index.htm

Workplace Solutions by the American Cancer Society
www.acsworkplacesolutions.com