Society has always obsessed over living longer. We’ve dreamed up fanciful ways to achieve that, from comic books’ superhero potions to Star Trek’s cryonics. But dream no more: Global life expectancy is currently at historic highs. Now that we’re living longer, the focus has shifted: how can we live better and healthier? Active aging holds the answer.
Active aging: the missing wellness link for older Americans
What comes to mind when you imagine your older self?
“A lot of the negativity we associate with aging—weight gain, loss of mobility and independence, and chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease—are not actually due to aging,” says Emily Johnson, founder of a seniors’ fitness education program. “Inactivity is the real culprit. Aging doesn’t equal chronic disease. Inactivity equals chronic disease.”
And there lies the rub. Older Americans need 150 minutes of physical activity a week, but less than 40 percent of those aged over 50 hit those targets.
“Exercise continues to be the best way to stay physically and intellectually healthy as we age, yet the older we get, the less we seem to be doing it,” says Johnson.
She thinks it’s because of social conditioning. “As we move [through] adulthood and into our senior years … seniors are encouraged to ‘take it easy,’” says Johnson.
It’s time to rewrite that story.
Active aging is better aging
“We live longer now, and we want to live with quality,” says senior athlete Bonnie Frankel. The former NCAA Division 1 player made sports history in the early 1990s when she successfully challenged NCAA rules and competed as a college student in her late forties.
“Exercise is a powerful way to unite our physical, emotional, and mental being. It helps us live our best lives. It helps our self-esteem because we’re able to be more independent. Implementing exercise in our daily lives allows us to have so much power.”
The game-changing benefits of active aging
You’ll live longer
In a study of adults ages 40 and older, meeting the recommended amount of weekly exercise added nearly 3 1/2 years to an individual’s lifespan. Even those who exercised less than the recommended amount still reduced their risk of early death by 20 percent.
You’ll think more clearly
Forget those so-called “senior moments” and memory problems that plague many older adults.
“Exercise jumpstarts the brain’s cleaning and rebuilding process known as autophagy,” says Dr. Scott Noorda, DO. The result? Improved memory, clearer thinking, and a reduced risk of dementia. Active aging has even been shown to increase the size of the part of the brain required for memory.
You’ll unlock real health
Dr. Marc Bubbs, ND, says that active aging tackles many of the major health challenges facing older adults.
“It improves blood glucose control,” says Bubbs, noting that high blood sugar levels are linked with an “increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all-cause mortality.
“It lowers systemic inflammation,” adds Bubbs, “[which is] associated with cognitive decline and increased risk of chronic diseases. Exercise also increases muscle mass, which fights off the loss of muscle and bone that occurs as we age.”
The best time to start is today
“It’s never too late to get active,” says Johnson. In one study, those who didn’t become physically active until they were middle-aged or in their senior years still saw significant health improvements.
First, pick a motivating goal.
“As we get older, exercise becomes less about [appearance],” says Johnson. “Instead, exercise helps to maintain independence, like being able to cook, going to lunch with friends, or lifting a grandchild.”
What is one thing you want to keep doing as you get older? Or perhaps there’s something you’d like to start doing? “Once you have a powerful motivator, exercise won’t seem like a chore,” notes Johnson.
Then, choose a fun physical activity that gets your blood pumping. Life’s too short to take a fitness class or go to a gym that you don’t enjoy.
“We don’t have any control over getting older, but we can control how we move,” says Johnson. “If you lift weights, your muscles will respond. If you go for a brisk walk, your heart and lungs will respond. Your body doesn’t know how old you are. It only responds to what is required of it.”
7 dimensions of active aging
Active aging primarily focuses on the promotion of physical activity, and the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA) encourages active aging as “a solution to improving the quality of life for older adults.” This encompasses seven specific areas of life.
Cultivate balance in your life. Find ways to manage stress well. We all know the clichéd yet important advice to live, laugh, and love.
Never stop learning. Engage your creativity and pursue whatever interests you.
From diet to daily habits, care for the body you’re in. It might be getting older, but it still has so much to offer.
Use your skills to create a better world.
Stay connected and invest in healthy relationships and friendships.
Find and live your true purpose.
Plug into the great American outdoors and enjoy our country’s natural beauty.
Simple choices to reduce your risk of disease
Dr. Marc Bubbs, ND, says the following small changes can lead to big results.
Go for a daily walk
Bubbs says it’s a great way to build aerobic fitness. It also improves the other dimensions of active aging. “Walkers have lower rates of depression,” he says, “and score higher in traits like openness, extraversion, and agreeableness. This allows for more connectivity to friends and your local community—another key for healthy aging and longevity.”
Get seven hours of sleep (or more) a night
Lack of sleep contributes to many health concerns that affect older Americans, including a higher risk of memory problems, mood disorders, and falls.
Eat more protein
“Achieve your daily total for protein intake—preferably 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day—to protect your muscles, bones, and brain as you age,” says Bubbs.