Sheri Colberg, PhD
Can You Slow or Reverse Aging with Physical Activity?
In the recent past, we discussed how to know if joint problems (e.g., overuse injuries) are due to being active, aging, or diabetes, but let’s just focus on aging by itself this time around. We’d all love to slow down normal aging or even reverse some aspects of it, but is that even possible?
There is a normal decline in most of our physiological systems that starts at around the age of 25 and continues over time. Although some of the bodily changes people experience over time are due to normal aging, many are actually caused by either disuse or a disease state. What we can mainly accomplish with physical activity is not to stop the decline totally but rather to slow down how quickly it happens (that is, its downward trajectory).
For example, bone density decreases slowly over time but extended bedrest, a sedentary lifestyle, and weightless environments (like being on the space station) all speed up bone mineral losses. Your goal should be to slow the rate of decline with physical activity, dietary improvements, and possibly medications to keep your bones from reaching a critical fracture point before you reach the end of your natural life span.
In many areas of your body, you can slow aging or possibly reverse premature aging with physical activity. The main areas you can impact include:
Heart: Despite people jokingly saying they have a finite number of heart beats so exercise is to be avoided, the reverse is actually true. We may have a finite number of beats, but regular physical activity likely increases that number. Interestingly, the heart is one of the few muscles in the body constantly exercises, and it requires an adequate blood supply to fuel its contractions. Exercise training can increase the diameter of coronary arteries and blood flow to the heart muscle, even if you have some blockage in your coronary arteries. Resistance training in particular appears to increase coronary blood flow and is recommended even in people who have diagnosed coronary artery disease.
Bones: Make sure to include both weight-bearing or bone “stressing” activities, if possible, to stimulate deposition of bone minerals and slow losses over time. Bearing weight on your bones creates stress that stimulates bones to grow stronger, as does the pulling of tendons on attached bones when muscles contract. Good activities include walking and other weight-bearing activities, resistance training (upper and lower body), and even whole-body vibration training in many cases.
Joints: Resistance exercises targeting the muscles around joints with osteoarthritis can lessen joint pain by taking some of the stress off the joint surfaces, tendons, and ligaments. Include both flexibility and resistance exercises to keep joints more limber, surrounding muscles strong, and mobility enhanced. Strengthening muscles around replacement joints is also crucial for long-term success with those new joints.
Core muscles: As part of the body core, abdominal, lower back and lower body muscles are critical for standing and balancing. Use targeted resistance exercises to build and retain their muscle mass. Also, practice balance and agility exercises to improve balance ability and prevent falls. In older adults, working on functional fitness is important for building strength and maintaining flexibility for basic self-care and independent living.
Ankle muscles: The ankles are complex joints and many problems arise when weak muscles allow them to roll too far in or out. Work on keeping your ankles strong to keep your balance, avoid falls, and prevent foot bone fractures and inflammation of tendons around the ankles. Include a series of ankle-strengthening exercises in your weekly routine, and work on keeping ankle flexibility to avoid injuries and falls.
Eye muscles: Most people over the age of 50 need longer arms (to hold things away from their eyes to read them). Instead of getting reading glasses or bifocals, try some eye exercises to retain the strength and mobility of the eye muscles responsible for near-focus reading and distance vision. These include simple exercises like rotating the eyes in various directions and alternating between focusing on near and far, back and forth.
Pelvic floor muscles: As mentioned in a prior article, pelvic floor muscles (or Kegel exercises) can keep those muscles strong and help prevent bladder leakage and urinary stress incontinence common with aging. A beneficial side-effect of doing Kegel exercises is greater sexual enjoyment, so why not give these a try? For starters, practice stopping your urine in mid-flow and then releasing it.
Brain: Physical activity helps slow the rate of brain decline (both cognitive ability and memory) by ensuring adequate blood flow to the brain and stimulating various areas involved in voluntary movement. Try doing simple memory exercises (like memorizing lists and repeating them later) as well as regular physical activity to keep your brain in top form and lower your risk for dementia. Better yet, do memory exercises while exercising for the best results.
However, the slow decline of the nervous system over time—as seen in slower reaction times—is not preventable. The best things you can do for your nerve function is to eat plenty of healthy foods replete with essential vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients and continue to be regularly active to slow the decline of everything else.
Physical activity is truly one of the best tools we have to improve the quality of our lives as we age and prevent declines from disuse and diseases related to poor lifestyles, regardless of how long we live. Here’s to using exercise to make it to 100 and beyond—with faculty intact and bodies (almost) fully functional!