OPINION | Benefits of training for the 60-plus: Fighting fit & making the most of your golden years

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About 80% of adults older than 60 years of age have at least one chronic condition, and 77% have at least two. Despite the known benefits of physical activity to health and physical function in aging, the proportion of older adults meeting recommended physical activity guidelines remains low.

There is considerable evidence that has emerged regarding the relative benefits of exercise or combinations of physical activity. These include cardiovascular fitness, progressive resistance training, multicomponent exercise, and movement classes (yoga, Pilates, tai-chi).

These are especially important for fall-related injury prevention, and for specific physical function outcomes, such as strength, posture, gait speed, balance, and general functioning in activities of daily living. The term ‘multicomponent’ activity refers to exercise that include more than one type of physical activity, including aerobic, muscle-strengthening, and balance training.

In general, older adults are less physically active than younger adults. There is strong evidence linking physical inactivity to chronic health conditions, as well as increased physical activity to lower mortality and morbidity in older adults. The benefits of exercise have been shown to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and some types of cancer.

With regard to the South African population, there is a high prevalence of obesity, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure, that are all known side effects of physical inactivity. Therefore, it is important to develop a strong commitment to improving safe, effective, and holistic physical activity levels in older adults. 

A significant challenge is to find effective ways to support older adults to increase their physical activity and then for them to develop habitual physical activity behaviours. Individual health practitioners, as well as exercise centres have an important role in making recommendations around physical activity to this highly valued sector of our society.

The WHO and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) both have similar ‘Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health’, in older adults. The main message is that at least 150 min per week of moderate intensity physical activity, combined with 2 days of strength work, is required for health benefit in older adults.

Specifically related to the current pandemic climate, immune function has become very topical, and maintaining a robust immune system is critical in staying safe and healthy. Regular exercise, especially at a low to moderate intensity, has proven benefits in optimising one’s immune function, whilst reducing the risk of viral infections in particular.

However, exercise and training do not only provide physical benefits, but mental too.

There is evidence that regular exercise result in cognitive benefits. The effect of aerobic exercise on cognition in the older population has shown a positive effect, improving auditory attention and cognitive/thought processing speed.

There is some evidence that low to moderate impact training reduces the risk of developing cognitive impairment in older adults, and that for people who have mild cognitive deficit (e.g. dementia), exercise may in fact be a protective factor.

The ‘happy’ factor associated with exercise also needs to recognised. The endogenous release of one’s happy hormones (endorphins) during exercise, result in the post-exercise ‘high’ and general feeling of wellness and elevated mood. These effects can have profound positive effects in overall mental health.

Besides the established physical and mental benefits of exercise, it also allows for a sense of community and meeting of like-minded people.

Specifically in the older population, social engagement and exercising together with similar age groups and physical ability allows for comradery and companionship. Exercising together encourages a sense of confidence and belonging, and may even motivate the participants to maintain an exercise routine, and so the benefits keep snowballing.

Safe, health-centred and holistic environments in which to exercise, improve physical and mental wellbeing and provide support and motivation for the older population, are the perfect platform that can provide our cherished older population with a and to be part of a greater like-minded community, striving for better health and longevity.

Exercise can delay or improve mobility disability, frailty, and loss of independence in aging. It is never too late to attain the benefits of an active lifestyle.

*Dr Adrian Rotunno is Virgin Active subject expert: Sports Science and Exercise Medicine

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