After undergoing a mastectomy two weeks ago, Betty Harris has been pleasantly surprised at how quickly she has bounced back. "I've had no pain, and I've really been able to move very well," explains the 80-year-old grandmother of six. Harris thanks a year of regular weightlifting and balancing exercises at Lakeview Village, her retirement community in Lenexa, Kan. The other payoffs: She can more easily stand up from a chair and climb stairs, and she was even able to lug her own suitcases on an Alaskan cruise this past summer.
Harris, though, is the exception to the rule. Despite the age-defying benefits of getting fit, seniors are the least physically active of all Americans—40 percent of women and 30 percent of men over 70 report that they never exercise. Beyond protection against heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, numerous studies suggest that regular exercise can lower the risk of decline—the dementia, the frailty—that spells the end of independence. Brisk walks around the neighborhood make a great start. But more is needed to prevent falls and retain strength and mobility. In August, the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association issued new exercise guidelines for seniors that call for several workouts a week incorporating resistance training, stretching, and balancing as well as aerobics.
The arguments for emulating Jack LaLanne are compelling. "There's so much people can do to turn back the clock by 10 or 15 years!" says Miriam Nelson, an associate professor of nutrition at Tufts University who coauthored the new guidelines. Those who work out for 45 minutes a day, she says, can improve their muscle strength by 75 to 100 percent and their bone density by 1 to 2 percent. They can also reverse a decade of decline in their heart and lung capacity. Getting regular aerobic workouts by walking, running, swimming, or biking, say, improves hypertension and cholesterol levels. Harvard University researchers have found that 2.5 hours of brisk walking per week can lower a woman's risk of heart disease by 30 percent; other studies suggest a 50 percent reduction in elderly men who walk 1.5 miles per day. In addition, exercise "produces a neuron growth factor that stimulates the brain," says Vonda Wright, an expert on exercise and aging at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. That may explain why it seems to protect against memory loss and alleviate depression.
"Just get off the couch, get your foot out the front door, and start moving," recommends Sister Madonna Buder, 77, a Roman Catholic nun from Spokane, Wash., who last year became the oldest woman to finish the grueling Ironman triathlon, which entails a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run. She started running nearly 30 years ago and now swims for an hour three times a week and does a long weekend workout such as a 7-mile run followed by a 25-mile bike ride.
Resistance training, meantime, can ease the aches and pains of aging. Strengthening the quadriceps, the four big muscles on the top of the thigh, for example, causes the muscles to absorb much of the burden on the knee joint, decreasing the pain of arthritis. And a spate of studies has found that two to three days a week of weight training preserves bone density and muscle mass, lowering the risk of fractures—a leading cause of debilitation in those over 65. "It has really helped improve my coordination," says Chris Crowley, the 73-year-old coauthor of Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You're 80 or Beyond, who hired a personal trainer to help him start weight training five years ago and is proud of his progress in handling expert ski slopes in the Rockies.
Beginners may want to join a senior-friendly gym with weight machines that allow 1- or 2-pound increments and trainers knowledgeable about arthritis, osteoporosis, and other health conditions. The International Council on Active Aging specifies which facilities are best for particular fitness levels at icaa.cc/facilitylocator.htm, and the American Council on Exercise has a list of personal trainers certified to work with aging populations.
As for balance and flexibility, yoga, Pilates, and tai chi address both. Or, "you can balance on one leg [and] then the other while standing at a sink," suggests Wright, and stretch each muscle group while watching TV.
A doctor's OK is a prerequisite, of course. Diabetics, for example, may be told to check their blood sugar after a workout and may need to lower their medication dose, since exercise improves blood sugar levels. Those with osteoporosis might be instructed to swim or bike rather than run. But given all of exercise's advantages, there's not much chance of being let off the hook.