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Benefits of exercise in older adults: part 1

Exercise has been promoted for older adults as a way to extend years of quality life
Exercise has been promoted for older adults as a way to extend years of quality life
Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

Physiological effects improve quality of life

Aging can be hard. Our muscles shrink, our brains shrink, diseases set in, we slow down. We have no control over most of that, but exercise can work against some of those processes and extend the number of years we enjoy a high quality of life.

Sandra Hunter, Associate Professor of Exercise Science at Marquette University, presented some of the benefits of exercise in later life at the Marquette Presents panel discussion “Exercise as Medicine” earlier this year.

“I'm not here to tell you that exercise can stop biological aging, but what I am here to tell you is that it can make a really big difference to your quality of life,” said Hunter.

Hunter explained that with age, the maximum amount of oxygen our bodies can take in decreases (the phenomenon is tied closely with the natural lowering of your maximum heart rate). We depend on oxygen for every kind of activity we engage in, so our performance in aerobic activities declines.

We tend not to notice this for the majority of our lives. Few of our daily activities push us to our full aerobic capabilities. But over time we hit thresholds where certain tasks are simply beyond our limits. And eventually basic day-to-day activities require our full oxygen capacity.

“That's exhausting,” said Hunter. “Not many people can manage to operate at 100 percent for more than a couple of minutes.”

For sedentary women, that threshold hits on average at about 78.

But if you're moderately active at that age, those same tasks on average only require 70 percent of your capacity. “If you're endurance trained,” said Hunter, “you're operating at about 50 percent of your maximum. So exercise can make a big difference to functional performance just during daily activities as you grow old.”

Kathy Molling, a Milwaukee-area physical therapist, said she sees that positive effect of exercise regularly. Molling works for The Lutheran Home in Wauwatosa, which specializes in short-term rehabilitation for older adults.

She shared that most plans of care include strength, balance and mobility routines that exercise the whole body, because patients frequently come with more than one medical issue. “We see improvements in those individuals. They come in maybe needing assist from two people just to get up out of bed or to transfer into a wheelchair, and then when we're finished working with them they go back to their independent home and they're doing everything independently.”

A full video of Marquette Presents: Exercise as Medicine can be found here. The next event in the series is currently scheduled for April 29 on the topic of new therapeutic strategies for spinal chord injuries. It is free and open to the public.

Part two will discuss strategies for encouraging older adults to stay active. If you would like an email update when it becomes available, click the Subscribe button above.