How exercise plays an important role in the elderly!

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Like it or not, we all get old and will have to deal with the physiological and psychological changes associated with the aging process. However, to a very large extent, we have control over the degree to which those changes impact our quality of life, because we are only as old as we believe we are. We have a very simple choice between sedentary aging that involves a myriad of negative effects resulting from inactivity and active aging that involves maintaining a high quality of life and functionality well into our elderly years.


Our greatest motivation as trainers and coaches should be to not only extend the lives of our clients but also prevent the decline of functionality with age. The goal is a life well-lived.


Attitude plays a huge role in determining the degree to which we remain active as we age. In turn, our level of activity determines the degree to which we remain functional across our lifespan. Contrary to the belief that functional decline and illness are unavoidable and predictable aspects of aging, the emerging research on fit older athletes is clearly showing that they not only live longer than a non-athletic population, they also are healthier later in life and have a lower prevalence of the disease. 


It is the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, not age, that cause functional decline and illness, and quality of life is significantly better for those who remain fit and active throughout the course of their lifespan. Becoming an athlete and remaining an athlete creates a “survival advantage”.


Our definition of health is fitness across age, or in more technical terms, work capacity across broad time and modal domains throughout life. Our goal is to increase that work capacity. The way we achieve that is by practicing constantly varied functional movements at high intensity. Applying this to an older client should be no problem because we use a principle of relative intensity where the stimulus is modified to match current levels of physical and psychological tolerance. This means that the CrossFit program is universally scalable, i.e., anyone can do it, and everyone should do it, especially your grandma.


Redefining the elderly athlete


The picture of aging that is painted for us is that we hit the peak of our physical capacity in our 20s, start to decline noticeably in our mid to late 30s, gain weight and become sedentary in our 40s, show signs of illness in our 50s, lose independence in our 60s, and finally, become frail and decrepit in our 70s—if we happen to live that long. It is expected that we will become ill and incapacitated as we get older, and we are told that age is a major risk factor for common diseases like coronary artery disease and diabetes. There is a pervasive theme in the older medical literature that age-based decline is predictable and inevitable.

It is a bleak picture that unfortunately does become a reality for a large number of people.


An Alternative View of Aging


An alternate view is emerging in the more recent research, and it is significantly more optimistic. There are biological and physiological changes that occur with aging, but they are not necessarily as limiting or predictable as previously thought. Research into an older athletic population, as opposed to a sedentary population, suggests that lifestyle and exercise are significant factors in successful aging. Successful aging can be defined as “a late-life process of change characterized by high physical, psychological, cognitive, and social functioning”. A high level of fitness as we age attenuates a lot of the negative effects often associated with aging and leads to a significantly better quality of life in later years. In trained individuals, balance is better and fall risk is lower, which is a major factor in maintaining independence.


Major medical risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and cancer are reduced, and those who achieve a high level of fitness and continue training to achieve greater overall life expectancy. An interesting study into the longevity of athletes found that Olympic medalists who maintain fitness live, on average, eight percent longer than an untrained population, which equates to 2.8 years of extra life.


For the non-elite, regular exercise across the lifespan reduces overall mortality from all causes by 40 to 60 percent. The benefits of physical training for older adults are profound. Age does not have to be synonymous with disease or a decline in function.



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