Once we hit the half-century mark, life changes and so do our bodies. Our fitness inevitably begins to fade. The harsh reality of aging is that our metabolism slows, and we lose not only cardiovascular vigor, but also muscle mass and bone density In fact, muscle strength is lost at a rate of roughly 15 percent a year after age 50, and 30 percent a year after age 70 [source: Nied]. Depending on our lifestyles and activity levels, we're also at risk for a litany of illnesses, loss of balance and mental health issues, as well as decreased vision and hearing.
For overall health, there are few better alternatives than a fitness regimen that includes weight-bearing exercises. The term "weight-bearing" simply refers to supporting our body weight against the force of gravity. So weight-bearing exercises can include, but certainly aren't limited to, running, jogging, walking, stair-climbing, hiking, dancing, aerobics, tai chi, yoga, elliptical training and plyometric calisthenics (such as squats and lunges).
Weight-bearing exercise, done several times a week, offers a veritable chain reaction of health advantages, provided those exercises are done with proper technique and in moderation. Those advantages include:
- Reducing the effects of aging by ramping up your metabolism (which will help keep your weight in check)
- Reducing stress and anxiety while promoting mental well-being
- Boosting your immune system while reducing the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, diabetes and obesity
- Preserving lean body mass
- Maintaining healthy joints, tendons and ligaments
- Increasing energy and endurance while promoting better sleep
In short, these exercises can add to the quality and quantity of your years. Like any exercise regimen, consult your doctor before getting started, especially if you've been somewhat sedentary, are overweight or have been previously prone to injury. Get a full fitness assessment, including bone-density measurement. Also, warm up before each session and cool down afterward. These exercises are undoubtedly beneficial, but you don't want to risk losing flexibility. Take time to slowly stretch out pre- and post-routine.
Let's start with developing a strong body.
The very act of getting stronger involves stressing our muscles. It's during recovery that we see the gains of strength training. Likewise, weight-bearing exercises ranging from running to aerobics to golf (sans cart) develop lean body mass.
Walking is often considered the perfect weight-bearing exercise for older adults, for a number of reasons. It's convenient and requires little investment other than time. Walking targets the large muscle groups of the lower body, including the calves, thighs, hamstrings, hips and gluteus maximus, says Mark Fenton, author of "The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss, and Fitness."
Further, you can break your sessions up into smaller increments, such as three 10-minute walks each day, and get the same benefit. "The real beauty of it, though, is that walking is the do anywhere, anytime, no-instruction-needed exercise," Fenton says.
Too boring? Try golf or dancing. Golf (provided you pass on the motorized cart) gives you all the advantages of walking, but adds the extra element of an upper body workout. Dancing, meanwhile, works your legs and posture while introducing balance into the fitness equation (more on that later).
Our muscles, though, are just a start. Find out why a weight-bearing routine is good for our bones.
Like our muscles, our skeletal system can reap significant rewards through weight-bearing exercise. It increases bone density, which means it can delay the onset and/or the progression of osteoporosis.
The truth is powerful muscles help support our body's skeletal framework. But exercise also makes the framework itself more stout by replenishing the minerals that make bones strong. According to research, significantly increased bone mineral density occurred in post-menopausal women who walked just 1 mile, three times per week [source: Etherington].
Plus, having stronger bones translates into reducing the risk of fractures. Hip and pelvic fractures are among the leading injuries among retirees from falls, and the increased density derived from exercise gives our bones a better chance to survive a fall unscathed.
Weight-bearing exercises, done within reason, can also help improve the health of our spine, keeping our bodies in proper alignment. However, "high impact" weight-bearing exercise such as running and jogging, especially for heavier baby boomers, can put undue stress on bones, particularly the lower spine and legs. Exercise caution [source: Mayo Clinic].
Conversely, walkers always have at least one foot on the ground, and each step only carries their own body weight in terms of force. Even race walkers won't strike the ground with more force than one-and-a-half times their body weight (compared to three to four times for runners).
"That's why you don't hear about walkers having stress fractures or knee problems," says Fenton. "Walking very briskly can be a great workout. In fact, for many people, it's the best workout because it is low impact, but it's weight-bearing. That helps you maintain bone density."
Do weight-bearing workouts also promote healthy internal organs? You bet.
Weight-bearing exercises are known to benefit more than just our musculoskeletal system. By improving our metabolism, we not only help keep our weight in check, but we also are pumping more oxygenated blood to our internal organs. That, in turn, fires our immune system and keeps disease at bay.
"The surgeon general recommends that every American adult get at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day, or 150 minutes a week," Fenton says. "We know you benefit from more, but if you get at least 30 minutes a day, five days or more, it reduces your risk for cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and its complications, clinical depression and a growing list of cancers."
The key to a more productive walking workout can be summed up in one word: intensity. To ramp up your cardiovascular system, pick up the pace. That gets the blood flowing to all our extremities and internal organs. Weight management is a pleasant byproduct.
"Cruising along at 3 miles an hour, which many people would consider a social walk, that's going to burn about 240 to 250 calories an hour," says Fenton, quoting typical numbers for a 150-pound adult. "At 4 miles an hour, you can burn up to 400 calories an hour. That's a pretty good clip."
Balance is another important component to overall fitness. Find out how weight-bearing exercise allows us to walk a fine line.
Balance. It works for us in our everyday life. And it works for our bodies. However, the aging process isn't always kind to our sense of balance, or general coordination. Our basic sensory organs -- eyes, inner ears and proprioceptors (the sensory receptors that receive stimuli and respond to position and movement) -- can all fall victim to Father Time.
The adage, "If you don't use it, you lose it," holds true. While improved bone density is one line of defense from fractures in potential falls, the best defense is to avoid falling altogether. And that's why balance is so important.
Weight-bearing exercise helps keep those sensory organs sharp. It's been linked to fewer falls in older populations, even if they don't begin such an exercise program until later in life. Falls were significantly decreased in study populations after just 12 to 18 months of beginning a regular, weight-bearing exercise program [source: McMurdo].
Low-impact weight-bearing exercises such yoga, tai chi, qigong and even dancing are exceptional choices for improving overall balance, strength and health [source: WebMD]. For example, in a 2006 study published in "Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine," Stanford University researchers reported benefits of tai chi in 39 women and men, average age 66, with below-average fitness and at least one cardiovascular risk factor [source: Harvard].
Exercise not only provides a sound body, but a sound mind as well. How? Keep reading.
For some odd reason, when we think of internal organs, we rarely think of our brains. But that wonderful, complex mass of neurological gray matter is also well served by the oxygen-rich blood that weight-bearing exercise sends coursing through our bodies.
Exercise has been clearly linked to an overall sense of well-being, and that includes our psychological state. We just feel better about ourselves when we're fit. A regimen of weight-bearing exercises can improve all forms of mental acuity, including heightened cognitive function (attention, processing and decision making) and short-term memory, while decreasing the risk of depression. It even enhances quality of sleep, which promotes mental clarity [source: Nied].
Think about that long, brisk walk that targets the major muscles of your lower body. Ever notice how much clearer you're thinking when you finish? Dr. Leroy Hood, co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology, a groundbreaking biotech firm in Seattle, says he does some of his best work on the road -- running.
"To solve really hard problems, I have to think about the problem from every single vantage point that I can," Hood says. "Typically, where I've done that is while running. I always like to run alone, because when I run, I think. At those times, when you're free and unhindered, and you allow yourself to think about it from many different points of view, then all of a sudden your experiences get integrated into solutions, and that's the creative moment."
Want to know more? We've got lots more information on the next page.
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- American Academy of Family Physicians. "The Exercise Habit." FamilyDoctor.org. Updated, December 2010 (May 31, 2011) http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/healthy/physical/basics/059.html
- American Academy of Orthpaedic Surgeons. "Seniors and Exercise: Starting an Exercise Program." Reviewed, February, 2008 (May 31, 2011) http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00531
- Etherington, J., and Harris, P.A. "The Effect of Weight-Bearing Exercise on Bone Mineral Density: A Study of Female Ex-Elite Athletes and the General Population." Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, Vol. 11, No. 9. 1996 (May 30, 2011)
- Fenton, Mark. Author, "The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss, and Fitness." Personal interview. January, 2009 (May 31, 2011)
- Harvard Women's Health Watch. "The Medical Benefits of Tai Chi." Harvard Health Publications (May 25, 2011)
- Hood, Leroy. Co-founder and president, Institute for Systems Biology. Personal interview. October, 2007 (May 29, 2011).
- Mayo Clinic. "Exercising with osteoporosis: Stay active the safe way." Oct. 6, 2010 (May 31, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/osteoporosis/HQ00643
- Mayo Clinic. "Tai Chi: Discover the many possible health benefits." Nov. 14, 2009 (May 25, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/tai-chi/SA00087
- McMurdo, Marion, and Mole, Patricia. "Controlled trial of weight bearing exercise in older women in relation to bone density and falls." BMJ, Vol. 314. Feb. 22, 1997 (May 31, 2011)
- Nied, Robert, and Franklin, Barry. "Promoting and Prescribing Exercise for the Elderly." American Family Physician. February, 2002 (May 30, 2011) http://www.aafp.org/afp/2002/0201/p419.html
- ScienceDaily. "Weight-Bearing Exercise Does Not Prevent Increased Bone Turnover During Weight Loss." March 27, 2010 (May 29, 2011). http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100311123533.htm
- University of Arizona. "Bone Builders: Exercise." (May 31, 2011) http://ag.arizona.edu/maricopa/fcs/bb/exercise.html
- WebMD. "Health Benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong." Reviewed, March 6, 2011 (May 29, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/balance/health-benefits-tai-chi-qigong