Too Old to Exercise?

In October, researchers from the University of California Irvine showed that being in poor physical condition raises the risk of dementia in people over age 90. They found that seniors who have trouble walking, standing and balancing are more likely to develop dementia. The study authors speculated, however, that the risk might be reversible.

Gerontologists are learning more and more about the way overall physical health influences brain health. They tell us that lifelong fitness increases the likelihood that we will remain cognitively healthy into our later years. But what about seniors who have not been particularly active? Does it do any good to begin an exercise program when you are 65? 75? 85? Older?

Universite de Montreal researchers say “yes.” Their geriatrics institute conducted a study of seniors who were aged 61 through 89. Half the participants took part in an exercise program over the course of three months; the other half did not. The results, which were published in the Journals of Gerontology, showed that the senior group who exercised “showed larger improvement in physical capacity (functional capacities and physical endurance), cognitive performance (executive functions, processing speed and working memory) and quality of life (overall quality of life, recreational activities, social and family relationships and physical health).”

Significantly, the benefits were equal no matter what the person’s physical condition. Even frail elders benefited from increased exercise. Lead researcher Dr. Louis Bherer stated, [pullquote]“My team was able to demonstrate that sedentary and frail senior citizens can benefit from major improvements not only in terms of physical function but also brain function, such as memory, and quality of life.” [/pullquote]His team will use these findings to promote an exercise program for seniors that will help both healthy and frail seniors stay at home longer.

Would you like to learn more about finding an exercise program tailored to your needs or those of a senior loved one? The National Institute on Aging’s online Go4Life program ( is a great place to start. According to Go4Life experts, only 25 percent of seniors engage in regular physical activity, and the percentage decreases with age. Go4Life offers information—and incentive—to help raise that percentage. Go4Life experts describe some of the benefits of exercise for the older population:

  • Fitness and cardio-respiratory health. In one study, moderately fit women and men had a 50 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, obesity and some cancers when compared with their low-fit peers. Fit people obtained additional benefit, typically another 10-15 percent lower risk.
  • Reduced pain, better function with osteoarthritis. In a clinical trial of people age 60 and older with knee osteoarthritis, those who participated in an aerobic exercise or resistance exercise program reported less pain and better function than those in the group assigned to a health education program.
  • Preventing diabetes. Results from the National Institutes of Health-sponsored Diabetes Prevention Program, which examines ways to prevent or delay the development of non-insulin-dependent diabetes, found that people over age 60 at high risk for diabetes reduced their risk by 71 percent by adopting a moderate exercise routine and a low-fat diet.

Study after study confirms the benefits of exercise in healthy aging. And it’s great to know that even a lifelong couch potato can benefit. Ask your healthcare provider about an exercise program that’s right for you. Your local senior services organization can also point you in the right direction. Get ready…get set…get your workout going!