Five Myths About Exercise and Healthy Aging

Related topics: Getting Enough Exercise

Surprising facts that can help you choose the best fitness routine.

By now most of us know that physical activity is a top contributor to longevity and health in our later years. With the aging of the baby boomers, more attention is being paid to understanding how exercise can help reduce the toll of chronic illness on the health of seniors and on the financial health of our long-term care system.

Over the past year, research has shed new light on some common misperceptions we might have about exercise. Here are five myths—and facts that can help us design our own optimal exercise plan.

Myth #1: Exercise only benefits the body.

Exercise benefits our hearts, muscles and bones, and reduces the risk of an array of health problems, from diabetes to kidney disease to arthritis. But many people are unaware that another very important organ—the brain—is also damaged by inactivity. You've probably read about "brain fitness games" and special computer programs to build up the mind and memory. But exercising the muscles is equally important when it comes to protecting brain health. Exercise strengthens connections in the brain and lessens the damaging effects of stress and depression. Within the past year, a study from the American Heart Association used brain imagery to demonstrate that exercise lessens the brain damage caused by stroke and diabetes. Another study from the Radiological Society of North America also used imaging, showing that exercise slows shrinkage of the brain as we age. Said Dr. Cyrus Raji, "Our initial results show brain aging can be alleviated through an active lifestyle." Dr. Raji also noted that engaging in a variety of different activities is the most beneficial. Activities that simultaneously engage both mind and body may be especially beneficial. Maybe taking up square dancing is a good choice?

Myth #2: Your age determines your optimum fitness routine.

Gerontologists say that with very few exceptions, older adults benefit from adding more physical activity to their lives. But the appropriate type and intensity of exercise varies from individual to individual—more so than was the case when we were younger. Some of us are fortunate enough to have a combination of genes, lifestyle history and luck that allow us to continue an exercise program that matches or even exceeds the activities of our younger years. For others, a modified, low-intensity physical activity prescription is recommended. As we grow older, it is more important than ever to discuss our exercise plan with our healthcare provider to be sure all activities are both safe and beneficial. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends that no matter what the intensity level of a person's workout, it should include aerobic, strengthening and flexibility components, as well as exercises that improve balance. Bicycling, dancing, walking the dog, working out on adaptive equipment at the gym, chair exercises, even playing active video games (such as the Wii system) can all provide a good workout, depending on our needs.

Myth #3: Running is better exercise than walking.

For weight loss, running has been found to be more effective than walking. But losing weight is not the only reason we need to be physically active. Last month in its journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, the American Heart Association reported that moderately paced walking is just as effective in reducing blood pressure, cholesterol levels and the risk for diabetes and heart disease. Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California examined the data from the National Runners' Health Study, which collected information on 33,000 runners and 16,000 walkers over the course of six years. The study compared the benefits by the distance people covered, not by the amount of time the workout took, and found that whether people walk or run, they gain similar health benefits over the same distance. Said principal author Dr. Paul T. Williams, "The more the runners ran and the more the walkers walked, the better off they were in health benefits. If the amount of energy expended was the same between the two groups, then the health benefits were comparable."

Myth #4: Exercise must be scheduled and structured.

Sporadic, occasional activities like a hike every couple of weeks don't provide the same benefit as regular, frequent exercise. However, recent research suggests that your daily exercise goals needn't be achieved during a single time period, nor do you need a strict routine. Oregon State University researchers recently reported that small amounts of activity—even as small as one- and two-minute increments that add up to 30 minutes per day—can be just as beneficial as longer bouts of activity in the gym. OSU professor Brad Cardinal says, "We are designed by nature as beings who are supposed to move. In our society, you will always be presented with things that entice you to sit or be less active because of technology, like using a leaf blower instead of a rake. Making physical activity a way of life is more cost-effective than an expensive gym membership. You may be more likely to stick with it, and over the long term, you'll be healthier, more mobile and just feel better all around." Added lead author Paul Loprinzi, "Our results suggest that engaging in an active lifestyle approach, compared to a structured exercise approach, may be just as beneficial. Seek out opportunities to be active when the choice is available. For example, rather than sitting while talking on the phone, use this opportunity to get in some activity by pacing around." Loprinzi advises people to look for small ways to be more active: instead of driving half a mile, try biking or walking the same distance; instead of using a riding lawn mower, use a push mower; instead of sitting through TV commercials, use the time to do some sit-ups or jumping jacks.

Myth #5: The baby boomers are the most physically fit generation ever.

The baby boomers, that large group of Americans born between 1946 and 1964, have a reputation as being very fitness-conscious. The stereotype boomer goes running every day, works out at the gym, and has a personal trainer. Yet contrary to this image, recent research suggests that the boomers are actually in worse health than their parents. In the March 2013 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, West Virginia University researchers reported that the boomers have a higher rate of poor health and disabilities than did their parents' generation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even predict a decline in life expectancy as obesity leads to an increased rate of hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and chronic disease. What is responsible for this startling trend? Only 18 percent of boomers get the recommended daily amount of exercise. And we now know that even people who exercise regularly experience a decline in health when they spend most of the rest of the day sitting. Our bodies did not evolve to spend hour upon hour in a chair or on a couch—yet today's culture, more than ever, finds many of us at a desk for eight hours or more, emailing our office mates rather than walking down the hall, sitting down all day…right into our leisure hours, which are often spent engaged with a variety of tempting—but sedentary—electronic entertainments. Despite their image of active senior living, the boomers shouldn't rest on their laurels—or their recliners. Follow a regular exercise program and be sure to engage in regular small amounts of activity throughout the day.

For More Information

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) website offers a free booklet, "Exercise and Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide," which you can download, order, or listen to online. The NIA also recently rolled out the Go4Life exercise and physical activity campaign for adults age 50 and over.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website offers consumer information on seniors and exercise.

Read more about the brain-protecting power of exercise in "How Exercise and Other Activities Beat Back Dementia" on the NPR website.

Studies show that hospitalized patients recover more successfully when they begin walking as soon as possible. This is just one of the many recommendations for reducing the staggering costs of rehospitalization. Read on to the next article to learn more about this important issue.

Previous article