In 2018, the World Population Data reported 9% of the global population to be 65 years old or older. This age group is defined as older adults or seniors. It is a known fact that the human body begins to decline with age due to cells losing their ability to rapidly divide and multiply. Cells also begin to lose their function or behave abnormally, and their cell membrane change. This makes it harder for them to take in oxygen and other nutrients, and remove carbon dioxide and wastes.
Against this naturally occurring phenomenon, research around the world is now showing that maintaining an exercise regimen can benefit seniors in many ways and potentially even slow down the aging process.
Below, we list the top seven benefits of exercise for seniors based on recent research studies.
1. Improved mental and physical health
A study done in Australia examined how retired individuals spent their extra free time and how it affected their mental health. The results published in PLOS ONE showed that most retirees were actually happier after retirement, and replaced 40% of their time spent at work with chores around the house and 20% of their time with screen time. The study considered chores around the house as a form of physical activity and linked this form of exercise for seniors to an improved mental state that was not limited to gender.
Building upon this, researchers at The Cooper Institute of Dallas in Texas worked towards finding ways to decrease the high-risk factors for depression and cardiovascular disease in older adults. With over 10 years of recorded data such as blood pressure, cardio-respiratory fitness, and more, researchers concluded that healthy individuals with a higher midlife fitness level had a lower risk of developing depression after the age of 65. Consequently, this also led to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease-related diagnoses. Their study was published in JAMA Psychiatry.
2. Decreased cardiovascular disease deaths
In a study published in the Journal of American Geriatric Society, data from the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid (UAM) was used to assess the frailty of adults aged 60 years or older in Spain from 2000 to 2001. Frailty was tested using the standardized “FRAIL questionnaire”, which included characteristics such as levels of fatigue, limitation in walking upstairs and on the flat, illness, and weight loss. The questionnaire then categorized individuals as “robust” (no frailty factors), “pre-frail” (one or two factors), or “frail” (three or more factors).
When comparing the robust to the pre-frail or frail, robust participants had a lower risk of mortality related to heart disease. The level of exercise for seniors was also followed throughout the study and those who were physically inactive had a higher risk of mortality than those who were physically active. Frail and physically inactive participants had the highest mortality risk while physically active pre-frail or frail participants had a lower risk than their physically inactive counterparts.
3. Improved brain health and cognitive function
With almost 1000 clinical trials all pointing towards the health benefits of exercise for seniors, researchers sought to find if these included improved cognitive brain health. The journal of the American Academy of Neurology published the surprising results that suggested there is no relationship between improved brain health and number of exercise sessions per week, exercise time per session, exercise intensity, or overall duration of the study. Instead, the total amount of time actually spent exercising was what showed to improve brain health.
Older adults who averaged 52 hours of exercise reported improved cognitive health as opposed to those who averaged only 34 hours. However, it should be noted that this study does not invalidate the relevance of exercise time per session or the number of sessions per week. Alternatively, the study suggests that it is important to maintain a regularly scheduled exercise for seniors to see improvements in brain health.
In another study done in Hong Kong and published in BMC Geriatrics, researchers found that practicing tai chi may also improve the cognitive function in seniors.
4. Reduced chronic pain
Along with decreased cognitive function, chronic pain throughout the musculoskeletal system increases with age. A study published in Aging Clinical and Experimental Research offered a 12-week tai chi program with two sessions per week. Participants of the study reported experiencing less chronic pain after the 12-week sessions. They also reported less fear of falling.
5. Reduced risks of disability
A total of 1003 older Japanese women participated in a clinical study that explored the correlation of different daily exercise routines and activities of daily living disabilities. The researchers considered any partial or complete dependence in at least one daily living task as a disability. After an eight-year follow-up with 130 of the participants, researchers found that dancing had the highest association to reducing the risk of incident disability, and was best for maintaining brain structure and balance ability.
Despite these results, several limitations of the study were considered. For example, those with poor health participated less in dancing, and those with a higher amount of disability events only participated in some exercise types. As a result, the study was not able to correlate specific exercise types and their influence on the risk of incident disability.
6. Prevent falls
Tai chi is a martial art form of exercise originating from China. The essential principles include mind integration with the body through controlled movements and breathing. Because of its multifaceted nature, tai chi as a form of physical activity provides many benefits for older adults. The Journal of the American Geriatric Society published results that demonstrated seniors who practice one hour of tai chi up to three times a week were less likely to experience imbalances and falls. This is significant as the United States allocates over $1 billion of healthcare expenditure for the medical consequences following accidental falls in the older population.
7. Treat fibromyalgia
A study published in The British Journal of Medicine highlighted the effects of tai chi on fibromyalgia. The chronic disease is characterized by an array of symptoms; these range from body pain, lack of concentration, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for symptom management of fibromyalgia. Tai chi has proven to be a suitable alternative to the often suggested high-intensity aerobic exercise for seniors. When compared to the aerobics group, the tai chi participants experienced greater improvements in fibromyalgia symptoms. The study has attributed this positive outcome to tai chi’s focus on mindfulness and physical activity aligning with the needs of fibromyalgia patients. Read more about the benefits of tai chi for seniors here.
With this population group steadily growing every day, it is crucial to support healthy aging among older adults. Many research studies have discovered that aging does not have to be associated with frailty and decline. Consistent exercise for seniors may potentially be able to slow the consequences of old age and cognitive health decline.
Written by Stephanie C. Tsang
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