The physical decline of older age

About half of the physical decline associated with ageing may be due to a lack of physical activity. Without regular exercise, people over the age of 50 years can experience a range of health problems including:

  • Reduced muscle mass, strength and physical endurance
  • Reduced coordination and balance
  • Reduced joint flexibility and mobility
  • Reduced cardiovascular and respiratory function
  • Reduced bone strength
  • Increased body fat levels
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased susceptibility to mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression
  • Increased risk of various diseases including cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Common myths

Many elderly people believe that exercise is no longer appropriate. Some of the common misconceptions that prompt elderly people to abandon physical activity include:

  • Older people are frail and physically weak.
  • The human body doesn’t need as much physical activity as it ages.
  • Exercising is hazardous for older people because they may injure themselves.
  • Only vigorous and sustained exercise is of any use.

Benefits to the older body

Some of the many benefits of regular exercise for older people include:

  • Muscle – the amount and size of muscle fibres decreases with age. Some studies suggest that the average body loses around 3kg of lean muscle every decade from middle age. The muscle fibres that seem to be most affected are those of the ‘fast twitch’ (phasic) variety, which govern strength and speedy contraction. There is evidence to suggest that these changes are related to a sedentary lifestyle, rather than age. Muscle mass can increase in the older person after regularly exercising for a relatively short period of time.
  • Bone – bone density begins to decline after the age of 40, but this loss accelerates around the age of 50 years. As a result of this bone loss, older people are more prone to bone fractures. Exercise may help to reduce the risk of bone loss and osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercise, in particular, helps to keep bones healthy and strong.
  • Heart and lungs – moderate intensity exercise is most favourable: for example, exercising at about 70 per cent of the individual’s maximum heart rate (220 beats per minute minus your age). Studies show that cardiorespiratory fitness takes longer to achieve in an older person than a young person, but the physical benefits are similar. Regardless of age, people are able to improve their cardiorespiratory fitness through regular exercise.
  • Joints – the joints of the body require regular movement to remain supple and healthy. In particular, people with arthritis can benefit from aerobic and strengthening exercise programs.
  • Body fat levels – carrying too much body fat has been associated with a range of diseases including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Regular exercise burns kilojoules, increases muscle mass and speeds the metabolism. Together, these physiological changes help an older person maintain an appropriate weight for their height and build.

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