Fitness and Aging Well: A Vital Correlation

How vital is fitness to aging well? Very. A recent study of participants in the 2015 National Senior Games, also known as the Senior Olympics, revealed that the typical participant had a fitness age of more than 20 years younger than his or her chronological age. According to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, fitness age is determined by a measure of cardiovascular endurance and is a better predictor of longevity than chronological age.

I asked Robert Drapkin, MD FACP, to help us understand the importance of physical activity to those of us who simply want to remain healthy. Dr. Drapkin is a former Instructor in Medicine, University of Illinois Hospital, Chicago and a Memorial Sloan-Kettering trained Medical Oncologist. He’s Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Medical Oncology, and Palliative Care and a competitive body builder, as well.

CBB: Dr. Drapkin, how does an active lifestyle as we age affect our cognitive health?

RD: Human and non-human animal studies have shown that aerobic exercise can improve a number of aspects of cognition and performance. A growing number of studies support the idea that physical exercise is a lifestyle factor that might lead to increased physical and mental health throughout life.

It is now clear that voluntary exercise can increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and other growth factors, stimulate neurogenesis, increase resistance to brain insult and improve learning and mental performance.

Recently, high-density oligonucleotide microarray analysis has demonstrated that, in addition to increasing levels of BDNF, exercise mobilizes gene expression profiles that would be predicted to benefit brain plasticity processes.

Thus, exercise could provide a simple means to maintain brain function and promote brain plasticity.

Related article: Protein Produced during Exercise May Prevent Alzheimer's

CBB: Are sedentary seniors truly at risk if they don’t exercise? If they want to begin, where should they start?

RD: Sedentary Seniors have the same need for exercise as young adults. All sedentary adults lose approximately 1% or more of their muscle mass every year, becoming weaker and gaining body fat as they age.

Low impact cardiovascular exercise such as walking is a good start. In general, progressive increase in duration and intensity of this is essential for improvement. Eventually adding interval training is the next progressive step. Ideally some light resistance training would come next - exercising each muscle group once per week.

CBB: What about seniors who have joint issues?

RD: The presence of degenerative joint disease or any ortho-kinetic dysfunction is a serious problem preventing most types of exercise. The alternative is swimming and water exercises to decrease the stress on the joints yet still exercising the muscles and benefitting from the metabolic improvement that occurs with exercise.

Related article: One In Three Cases Of Alzheimer’s Lifestyle Related

CBB: How do you motivate sedentary seniors to exercise?

RD: Motivation is a key factor in a healthy life-style and has three essential components.

1. You need a long term goal such as to increase energy, restore sex life, lower blood pressure or improve diabetes.

2. You need to measure your progress using weight, belt or dress size, per cent body fat and/or exercise increase.

3. You need willpower.

Motivation comes through acquiring the knowledge of how your body works and changes as you age.

CBB: Thank you, Dr. Drapkin, for your help in understanding the need for exercise as we get older, particularly when it comes to heart and brain health.

Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at