Healthy Aging: Know the Facts

By John Sandgren, MD
John Sandgren is a recent Evolve grad and a member of the Vital Aging Network’s Wellness 50+ Design Team. We are pleased to have his contribution to our knowledge base about how to age well.

Nov 102014

This is the second of a series related to physical fitness entitled: Think of Exercise as a Pill that Promotes Long Life and a Whole Lot More.

Woman doing qi gong tai chi exerciseAs I discussed in part 1 of this series, regular exercise prevents death and that’s certainly a wonderful benefit, but exercise also does a whole lot more. It imparts physical strength and stamina. It boosts energy levels and combats fatigue. Regular exercise has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of developing heart disease, chronic lung disease, high blood pressure, and type II diabetes. People with high blood pressure can safely exercise, provided their hypertension is controlled reasonably well, and regular exercise tends to lower blood pressure over time. Exercise can also prevent and treat obesity when combined with a weight loss diet; and exercise reduces the risk of osteoporosis, when it’s walking or jogging or a similar activity that gently jars the bones.

One of the great benefits of exercise is relief of stress and anxiety. Sleep improves. People suffering depression are helped, and some preliminary evidence suggests the risk of dementia and cognitive decline in older persons may lessen.

Many kinds of exercise promote balance and flexibility. Yoga and tai chi (also called tai chi chuan) are two examples. Combine balance work of this type with exercises that strengthen large muscles (legs, hips, torso [chest, abdomen and back], shoulders, and arms) and your risk of falling and injuring yourself will drop significantly. Randomized studies have shown that tai chi reduces the risk of falling in older people. Researchers have studied tai chi because it needn’t be strenuous, older people can perform it, and it utilizes sound principles of movement and posture.

One such randomized study from Connecticut demonstrated that tai chi did indeed help study subjects 75 years and older maintain balance skills, but the results suggested further that resistance exercises in combination with tai chi might do even better.1 The likely reason for the added benefit of resistance exercises is that, inevitably, sooner or later, people lose muscle mass as they age. Skinny legs and hips and weak backs and abdomens lead to more falls. Resistance training, where you exert your muscles against weights, springs, or elastic bands, increases both muscle strength and mass and slows down this loss. Pilates and weight-lifting are two good examples of resistance exercise and, quite honestly, it’s inspiring to see an 80 or 90-year-old suited up and working at a weight machine. Doing resistance exercises correctly and safely can be achieved with a few lessons from a fitness instructor.

Regular exercise has been shown to increase success rates for people who are trying to quit smoking. Exercise can help people who suffer from conditions of chronic pain, as in osteoarthritis. Regular exercise modestly reduces the risk of certain cancers like breast and colon cancer, and also endometrial, prostate, and pancreatic cancer. Furthermore, survival in persons who have these cancers is also improved by regular exercise.[2]

Exercise can be a stimulating social experience. Walking groups, fitness clubs, aerobic classes, ballroom dancing, and group classes for seniors can be social, informative, and motivating. And regular physical activity has been shown to improve the ease with which 70 to 78-year-olds perform activities of daily living (ADLs) and to increase the percentage of 78 to 85-year-olds who are still able to perform their ADLs independently.[3]

Chances are you’ve heard of some additional benefits with exercise, but here’s one you may not have heard: gallstones are less likely to cause trouble in people who exercise and happen to have gallstones in their gallbladders.

Read other entries in this seriesDownload a pdf of the entire Exercise as a Pill series.


[1] Wolfson L, Whipple R, Derby C, et al. Balance and Strength Training in Older Adults: Intervention Gains and Tai Chi Maintenance. J Am Geriatr Soc (Journal of the American Geriatrics Society) 1996; 44:498.

[2] Peterson D. Overview of the Risks and Benefits of Exercise. UpToDate, Wolters Kluwer Health. August 20, 2014.

[3] Stessman J, Hammerman-Rozenberg R, Cohen A, et al. Physical Activity, Function, and Longevity Among the Very Old. Arch Intern Med (Archives of Internal Medicine) 2009; 169:1476.