Aging Well: Movement

As we end the year I am reflecting on how many of my friends, clients, and family members mention a symptom like stiff joints or sore muscles, brain fog, and new diagnoses around cardiovascular disease, cancer, or blood sugar, weight gain, and then ask,

“I know it is a sign of getting older, but is there something I can do about these symptoms?”

The answer is yes! Over the last year, I have written in an occasional series on the topic of aging well. I wanted to come back to that and talk about movement and the role movement plays in keeping us feeling young, and both preventing and reversing chronic disease.

The top causes of death worldwide (based on 2019 statistics) are cardiovascular disease, cancers, digestive disease, dementia, and respiratory diseases. This might surprise you, but movement (cardio and strength training) is the number one thing we can do to reduce our risk of developing diseases associated with aging.

The rest of the list of interventions we can do to decrease our risk of early mortality includes

  • eating a nutrient-dense diet
  • managing stress
  • having good social relationships and a sense of purpose
  • balancing hormones including blood sugar
  • supporting a strong immune system and microbiome
  • reducing inflammation, exposure to toxins, and pathogens

Targeted supplements and medications, calorie restriction, and exposure to heat and cold have also been shown to be helpful. While there are lots of different interventions we want to include to help us stay healthy as we age, exercise is unique in that it has been studied extensively and has been shown to decrease disease risk in many different pathways.

The benefits of exercise go beyond what we might think of off the top of our heads. Exercise benefits fit into several different pathways including:

  • Cardiovascular — Exercise reduces mortality, blood pressure, and coronary artery disease.
  • Cancer — Exercise reduces the risk of breast, prostate, and bowel cancers.
  • Muscularsketal — Exercise reduces the risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis, falls, and disability.
  • Neurological — Exercise reduces depression and anxiety, stress, dementia, and risk of stroke, increases cognitive function, and improves mood.
  • Endocrine — Exercise reduces weight, blood sugar spikes, diabetes risk, and LDL cholesterol, and increases HDL cholesterol.

Look at that list!

How Much Is Enough
How much is enough? We think of exercise in set blocks like the 1-hour dance or spin class or 10,000 steps and if we don’t finish those blocks we are not succeeding. But these are random intervals and optimal exercise levels are really individualized. If you currently do no exercise, doing just a little bit will make a difference.

One recent study in the journal, Nature, found that three small bouts of dairy vigorous activity lasting 1-2 minutes each (walking fast for example) showed a 40% lower risk of premature death, in sedentary adults. Let go of the blocks of time associated with exercise and aim for an activity level and length of time that you can do again the next day. Consistency is key. 

If you exercise a lot, you want to keep challenging yourself to exercise a little bit harder or a little bit faster, not necessarily longer. Chronic excessive endurance exercise can actually lead to increased health issues by putting too much stress and strain on the body. This is especially true in women.

The goal with exercise time and intensity is to do it to a level that puts a small amount of stress on your body so that it builds back stronger. This is called hormesis. Current research suggests that 2.5 to 5 hours/week of vigorous cardiovascular or 5 to 10 hours/week of moderate cardiovascular exercise, or an equivalent combination of both, is optimal to reduce the risk of all-cause of mortality. More than 10 hours/per week of vigorous activity may result in a decrease in health benefits.

Again exercise levels and endurance time are individual. If you are not recovering well or are getting injured often, that might be a sign that you need to reevaluate your current exercise level. You don’t want to stop moving, but mix it up or take more active rest days.

Use It or Lose It
Inactive people can lose between 3-5% of their muscle mass each decade after age 30. By 60 or 70 that can lead to a significant loss of muscle. Loss of muscle mass not only contributes to frailty but changes in mobility, brain function, hormone levels, insulin levels, obesity, low-grade inflammation, decreases in bone density, fatigue, and for some social isolation. Muscle mass alone, independent of fat mass or cardiovascular health, has been associated with an increased mortality risk in older adults. Once we lose muscle, it takes some effort to build it back.

There are lots of ways to bring strength training into your life from yoga, barre, or pilates to bodyweight exercises, weight training, or bands. You can do it in the gym, at home, in the park, in a class, on YouTube, or on Zoom … If you have a physically active job, that may be enough for you. Just like with cardio training, in a focused strength training session, a little focused effort can go a long way. There is no best exercise or a single way that works for everyone. The best exercise is one that feels good in your body and brings you some joy.

What Works for Me
Movement feels good at the moment, but it also is key in preventing disease and slowing the aging process later in life. In my own health journey, injury and illness have required that I change my exercise routine time and again. I have gone from runner to hiker and from tennis player to biker because of arthritis in my knee. What I have found is that there are lots of activities that I enjoy and feel good in my body, and that no specific way is the “right way”.

Now I use my exercise time as a time to connect with friends and family. I bike and hike with friends several times a week. Making a date with a friend ensures that I get out of bed and get outside even when it is cold out. Our family takes a ski trip (or two) each year and when we are together we enjoy hiking and kayaking. In addition to the exercise benefits, it is a time for us to come together. I have created a space in my house and time in my schedule for strength training, stretching, and an occasional yoga class. Over time, I have gone from really disliking strength training and stretching it to embracing it.

Incorporating Movement into Your Life 
Movement is not all or nothing. There are many ways to incorporate regular movement into our lives at any and every level. If you don’t currently exercise or don’t like to exercise, I encourage you to try it again, experiment, get some help from a professional, join a class, or maybe find a friend or family member to exercise with to make it social and more fun. If you currently have health issues, get your doctor’s ok before starting a new exercise program.

If you are a regular exerciser, are you consciously pushing yourself to get a little stronger? Maybe experiment with some new activities, train for a challenge, an event, or an active vacation, or recruit your friends or family members to join you.

Next Steps
… As you head into the new year are your health and wellness goals top of mind?
… Do your diet and/or lifestyle need an upgrade in 2023?
… Are you looking for some direction, facts over fiction, support on what is best for your body, and accountability?

If so, let’s set up a time to talk. If you are new to Barabra Sobel Nutrition, book an exploratory call (for new clients) or a follow-up visit (for existing clients) at book an appointment so we can dive deeper together.