Physical Activity: The Secret to Healthy Aging

If someone said to you, may I share with you the secret of healthy aging? Hardly any of us would walk away from an offer like that. The secret that makes you healthy throughout life is simply this: become physically active or become more physically active than you already are. The sooner we add more physical activity to our week the healthier we stay going forward in life. The good news is it’s never too late to start at any age.

Of course your health status may dictate how much and what kind of activity you can do. Always check with your doctor if you have health concerns. Chances are your doctor will happily advise you to become active in some way.

Research demonstrates that participating in regular moderate-to-vigorous physical activity provides many health benefits. Some of those are immediate, such as reduced feelings of anxiety, lower blood pressure, improved sleep, better cognitive function, and insulin sensitivity.

Maintaining physical activity over a long period of time prevents the development of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and may prevent eight kinds of cancer (bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, stomach and lung). Progression of these chronic diseases, especially diabetes and cardiovascular disease, also slows. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease risk may be reduced as well. Activity also burns extra calories resulting in gradual weight loss. You feel better about yourself and have more energy for things you like to do.

One consistent finding from research shows health benefits begin to accumulate as soon as you increase your physical activity over what is normal activity for you and additional amounts of physical activity provide additional benefits. The benefits gained occur for people of any weight meaning you can improve your physical fitness even though you may be overweight. Health improvements can occur with as little as 60 minutes a week although longer is better.

The short and sweet of it is we should sit less and move more. This is true for all ages. Based on research evidence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition, 2018, recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, such as brisk walking, to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases and adverse health outcomes. Greater benefit occurs with an increase of 150-300 minutes per week. Either way the time spent is 20 to 45 minutes each day. Another option is to divide the time across three days per week. Physical activity can be schedule friendly and doesn’t require a gym membership.

For the best overall fitness, combine the three kinds of physical activity including:

Aerobic activity increases your heart rate and improves cardiovascular and lung function and can be of moderate intensity or more vigorous at a faster pace. Examples are walking or jogging/running, swimming or swimming laps, bicycling under 10 miles per hour or more miles per hour, active forms of yoga or aerobic exercise.

Muscle-strengthening activity increases bone strength and muscular fitness and can also help maintain muscle mass during weight loss. Examples of muscle-strengthening activities include lifting weights, working with resistance bands, doing calisthenics that use body weight for resistance (such as push-ups, pull-ups, and planks), carrying heavy loads, and heavy gardening. This type of exercise does not require going to a gym.

Flexibility activity improves the ability of a joint to move through the full range of motion. Stretching exercises are effective in increasing flexibility that allows people to more easily do activities that require greater flexibility.

As people age, they are less and less likely to engage in any of these activities. Muscle mass gradually declines over decades resulting in overall weakness and strength. People are at greater risk of falling and the activities of daily living become harder to do. The good news is that we can regain strength and fitness, maybe not to the degree of a young person, but certainly better. As someone said, “use it or lose it.”

Make a plan. First check with your doctor to make sure you don’t have any medical limitations. Make sure you have good shoes for whatever aerobic activity you pick.

Making a plan involves thinking SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time oriented. Basically this is the “how, what, when and where.” It’s a motivating strategy.

Here’s how a guy named Allen made his plan. Allen liked being active, but any kind of physical activity was low on his priority list. He was busy doing other “stuff.” He did buy a treadmill a few years ago, but never used it. His doctor had been telling him his cholesterol numbers were a bit too high, that he was at risk for cardiovascular disease and should lose weight to lower his risk. Here’s how Allen defined his SMART plan.

  • Specific: Set up treadmill for walking and use walking as my aerobic exercise. My goal is a daily three mile walk.
  • Measureable: Walk four days during the week before going to work and one day on the weekend. This means getting up earlier and going to bed earlier.
  • Achievable: Start by walking 15 minutes the first week, increase 5 minutes each week until able to walk three miles. Increase pace of walking as heart rate improves.
  • Realistic: Walking is enjoyable. I can do it to music. I have a treadmill.
  • Time: Accomplish the three mile walk by the next doctor’s appointment in three months.

Reference: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2018

Written by: Mimi Cunningham, Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist, Diabetes Educator

Mimi Cunningham is a dietitian-nutritionist living in Eagle, Idaho. Her nutrition specialty is diabetes education and management. She loves writing about embracing healthy eating as fun plus a route to good health. She serves as a member of the Idaho Foodbank board of directors addressing food insecurity as a challenge to good health for Idaho children and adults.

On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Mimi Cunningham for her contribution to our community website and commitment to healthy living and aging.