Exercise Is The Best Medicine For Aging

Exercise does much more than just cut your risk of Alzheimer’s.  Many of the effects of aging are caused by muscles becoming weaker and frail.

UBC Okanagan assistant professor Gareth Jones of the Healthy Exercise and Aging Lab in the Institute for Healthy Living and Chronic Disease Prevention. is leading a study into frailty and how muscles function as we age.
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Due to the effects of aging, many seniors have to perform at elite-athlete levels, straining at 80 to 100 per cent of their ability just to do simple household tasks. All over the Okanagan, these would-be senior athletes are being studied, wearing wires and electrodes as they putter about the house or a lab as part of the University of B.C. research project.

Many older adults require home or assisted care, because these types of activities become too challenging, not because of chronic disease, but just because they have lost the physiological capacity.  We can retrain that capacity. It’s not lost forever. 

According to Jones’s research, the older you are, the faster your muscles tire, with fewer rests, leading to increased fatigue. Exercise can help, but 60 to 90 minutes of vigorous activity daily is what’s needed for seniors to remain independent. In other words, exercise is medicine for aging.

Research in the fields of gerontology and geriatrics is a hot topic, with good reason. By 2026, one of every five Canadians will be over 65, according to the Canadian Institute of Health Research’s Institute on Aging   More than a million Canadians are over 80 years old, and that number is growing, according to the Canadian Geriatrics Society

In B.C., nearly one in seven residents is over 65, and in 20 years, that figure will more than double to one in four. As residents live longer  – life expectancy in B.C. has risen from 60 in 1922 to 81 in 2007 – they also want to know how to live better.

A new Canadian study hopes to unlock clues to help seniors thrive as they live longer. In 2008, the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging was launched with the aim of following 50,000 citizens aged 45 to 85 for 20 years. More than 200 Canadian researchers will study the interaction of everything from subjects’ medical histories and blood samples to family relationships and social supports.

“It’s just amazing. It’s covering the A to Z of gerontology. It’s like a Webster’s dictionary on aging,” says Andrew Wister, chair of Simon Fraser University’s department of gerontology,  who is heading one of three B.C. data-collection sites for the study.

Wister said studies show maintaining social contacts or retaining a sense of purpose is, with diet and exercise, a key to longevity.  “If you look at the characteristics of these people with longer life-spans, we find there is a strong sense of community and some kind of spiritual or family aspect that gives them a joie de vivre, that gives them something to live for,” he said.

One of the best ways to stay young is to keep learning, according to Neena Chappell, director of the Centre on Aging at the University of Victoria.and president of the Canadian Association on Gerontology.

Volunteering is an excellent source of mental stimulus and social connection. According to Statistics Canada, more than a third of people over age 65 volunteered in 2004. Seniors groups also offer advice on ways to stay healthy.

Back in his UBC Okanagan lab, Gareth Jones sums up his prescription for health and longevity this way:

You have to keep challenging yourself. Look at the people who get the most out of life. They are the people who continually challenge themselves physically, mentally and socially. Then you get to enjoy aging to a much higher degree.

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