HealthZette

The Grave Risks of Inactivity

Moving around matters. Really! Here is proof you can't resist.

The good news is we are living longer. The bad news is we are not living better.

Several recent studies, including one published last year in The Lancet, showed that global life expectancy rose by more than six years since 1990. The increase in healthy life expectancy did not grow as quickly.

The good news — it may not take much to make a difference.

A new study led by neurologists at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine found that exercise in older people is associated with a slower rate of decline in thinking skills that occurs with aging.

“For older people, getting regular exercise may be protective, helping them keep their cognitive abilities longer,” study author Clinton B. Wright, M.D., M.S., an associate professor of neurology at the Miller School, said in a statement.

People with low activity levels showed a greater decline over five years than those with high activity levels; the tests that measured how fast they could perform simple tasks and how many words they could remember from a list. The difference actually equaled a full decade of aging.  

“Physical activity is an attractive option to reduce the burden of cognitive impairment in public health because it is low cost and doesn’t interfere with medications,” Wright said. The study was published in the March 23 online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

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Recognizing long ago the role exercise plays in healthy aging, entrepreneur Martin Pazzani launched a healthy aging program called Act!vate Brain and Body. Pazzani has held senior positions at numerous companies including Bally Total Fitness and Crunch, and Act!vate Brain and Body aims to serve those over 45, he said, because the current fitness industry does little to serve that age group.

“We have a huge cultural problem in that the aging baby boomer population is the most unfit group in history.”

The 2016 Physical Activity Council Report revealed that almost 30 percent of adults between ages 45 and 54 were inactive. That number increased to 35 percent for those aged 55 and 64 — and 38.6 percent for those 64 and older.

The World Health Organization lists physical inactivity as the fourth leading cause of death. Others call this an “inactivity pandemic.”

[lz_table title=”Leading Causes of Death” source=”World Health Organization”]
High Blood Pressure,12.8%
Tobacco Use,8.7%
High Blood Glucose,5.8%
Physical Inactivity,5.5%
Overweight & Obesity,4.8%
High Cholesterol,4.5%
Unsafe Sex,4.0%
Alcohol Use,3.8%
[/lz_table]

Physical exercise is critical to long-term health, particularly among the older generation, according to Dr. John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”

“From an evolutionary perspective, exercise tricks the brain into trying to maintain itself for survival despite the hormonal cues that it is aging. High-intensity exercise can reverse loss of brain volume that naturally occurs with aging,” Ratey told LifeZette.

It’s easy to fall prey to the myth that starting exercise late in life will be of little value. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Dr. Art Kramer studies how fitness can change the aging brain. He is based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science & Technology and the Swanlund chair and professor of psychology and neuroscience.

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“It’s never too late to reap the benefits of exercise. Even people who hold off on regular aerobic activity until later in life may still be able to gain from exercise in their senior years,” Dr. Kramer told LifeZette.

Along with cognitive stimulation and proper nutrition, exercise can provide profound health benefits as we age.

A landmark study released by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) in 2014 found that three-quarters of those who participated in reasoning exercises and information-processing drills displayed those abilities a decade later. The training suggested that participants were able to carry out daily activities as if they were 10 years younger.

None of this research should come as a surprise, really — common sense dictates that living a fit and active lifestyle should be stimulative to both body and brain. Decline is inevitable, but why experience a long slow decline that reduces the quality of life and introduces numerous and expensive health risks?

Altering the very nature and trajectory of aging, health experts agree, does not require enormous commitment.

“It’s about doing the right kind of exercise, which is like an anti-aging potion. It can slow down the decline, drastically extend your active and productive mid-life years, make you more resistant to the maladies of old age, and give you a longer, happier, healthier life. Why spend your 60s, 70s, and 80s in decline when they can be your best years? They can be — if you stay active,” Pazzani said.