"Aging Well Through Exercise" by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President & CEO

Aging Well Through Exercise

February 1, 2012 - Your level of physical fitness is important in avoiding body frailty and delaying brain aging. Two recent studies—one from the University of Pittsburgh and the other the University of Arizona—have confirmed these findings in scores of men and women by comparing physically fit people in different age groups with those who had not exercised. They discovered that lack of exercise, in this latter group, had caused their muscles to be infiltrated with fat and their brains to atrophy.

These important findings show that physical frailty is not inevitable as we grow older. In the past, geriatricians like myself, were taught that after the age of 40 folks typically lose 8% of their muscle mass each decade. As we age, this process accelerates in those people who are sedentary. With the loss of muscle mass, they weaken and become vulnerable to falls, broken bones and an even more accelerated loss of muscle mass, resulting in even greater risk. This downhill spiral is a major cause of death in the elderly. BUT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO HAPPEN!

University of Pittsburgh physicians and sports medicine experts compared forty competitive runners, cyclists and swimmers with people in the same age group and gender who were not as physically fit. The results were very encouraging. Although there was a decline in muscle strength at age 60 in both sexes, there was little additional decline thereafter in the physically fit group. The amount of fat infiltration in the thigh muscles was also measured and paralleled the changes in strength. The 70 and 80 year old athletes were more similar to those athletes in their 60s than the out of shape people in the older age group.

Older folks do not need to lose muscle mass and function due to aging, according to the orthopedist who led the study. Previously, we have assumed changes due to aging were unstoppable. By continuing to exercise, however, we can slow the aging process to a great extent. Naturally, older athletes can be troubled by injuries which are more frequent and have a longer recovery period. But even this misfortune can be ameliorated by cross training, stretching, being mindful of realistic limits and most importantly, in my opinion, not getting out of shape in the first place.

According to psychologist Gene Alexander and researchers at the University of Arizona, regular aerobic exercise can help stave off the mild cognitive failings of normal aging and spur the growth of new neurons in areas of the brain associated with memory and learning. This research becomes more and more important as 8,000 baby boomers per day turn 65. Those “senior moments” can be embarrassing, but limited by staying in good physical and mental shape. Using your body and mind are critical for successful aging.

Clearly, being involved in cognitive activities such as puzzles, cards requiring thinking, learning a new foreign language, writing, and other executive functions keep memory and reasoning ability at a higher level. Physical activity and staying in shape have been conclusively shown to be very important in brain functioning. Normally, the brain shrinks with age in those people who are not physically fit. However, neural activation, which is a measurable proxy for cognitive function, is objectively more intact in physically fit individuals.

We are all living longer, especially in Collier County: our female population has the longest life expectancy for women – 86 years – in America. Men in Collier have the second highest at 81 years. We want to live well physically and mentally. Staying in shape makes a huge difference. Once you are in shape, exercise is fun and can be almost addicting.

So, I’ll look for you on the road, in the pool or at any one of the beautiful exercise facilities in town—the “Y” or one of the new gyms, or at either of the NCH Wellness Centers.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.