Studies Reaffirm Benefits of Exercise for Seniors

(VIDEO: Watch Mark Caruso, M.D., a Baptist Health Medical Group physician, speak about the importance of regular exercise for older adults.)

Moderate to vigorous physical activity is more likely to help prevent age-associated weight gain, instead of dieting alone, according to a new study. Another group of researchers found that staying physically active as you get older could prevent brain damage that can limit mobility.

Both studies are only the latest to reaffirm the importance of regular exercise, which can include something as simple as brisk walking, as you get older.

“We try to tell our seniors to remain active,” said Mark Caruso, M.D., a Baptist Health Medical Group physician with Baptist Health Primary Care. “We have a catch phrase — ‘never slow down’ — because when they do slow down that’s when the aging process begins to catch up.”

In the first study, researchers from the University of South Carolina examined the related affects of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, diet quality, and weight status across a range of age categories in U.S. adults. The study of 4,999 Americans, ages 20 to over 70 years old — published in the Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise journal — found that body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference tended to be higher in the older adults.

But it was “higher levels of physical activity” that was “consistently associated with more favorable weight status,” compared to attempts at changing dietary habits without incorporating regular exercise. Of course, proper nutrition is critical at any age, but the most recommended programs for ideal weight management involve both dietary improvements and physical activity.

The bottom line: If all Americans met the federal government’s physical activity guideline, a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, “the rates of overweight and obesity would be substantially lower than they are today,” according to lead researcher Russell Pate, Ph.D., of the University of South Carolina.

Just 20 Minutes a Day

Even just 20 minutes a day is beneficial, especially for those 75 years of age or older, says Dr. Caruso. At that age, “a little bit of weight gain can start a spiraling process” of greater weight gain and muscular-skeletal issues, he said. “We try to get our 75 and older crowd to exercise every day, 15 to 20 minutes,” Dr. Caruso said.

In the other study, published online in the journal Neurology, researchers found that daily physical activity may be able to “protect motor function from age-related injury to the brain,” said lead researcher Debra Fleischman, a professor in the departments of neurological sciences and behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Researchers studied small areas of brain damage called “white matter hyper-intensities,” which are seen in MRI scans of many older patients. Higher levels of this damage have been linked to difficulty walking and other mobility problems, the researchers said.

The researchers found that seniors who exercised the most, even if they had high levels of brain damage, maintained their scores on 11 tests that measure movement ability.

Exercise Guidelines for Older Adults

Regular physical activity is important at any age. Exercising even for a few minutes a day can prevent or diminish many of the health problems that intensify with age, including joint paint, stiffness and swelling from arthritis. Physical activity helps maintain muscle strength, so older adults can perform day-to-day activities without becoming dependent on others.

Keep in mind, some physical activity is better than none at all.

If you’re 65 years of age or older, are generally fit, and have no limiting health conditions you can follow these guidelines, according to the CDC:

  • Two hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., brisk walking) every week and;
  • Muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).

Also acceptable, the CDC recommends, is an equivalent mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, along with muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).

“We try to emphasis very precisely that staying active is paramount to staying young,” Dr. Caruso said.

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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