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Stay Fit, Stay Young--Even if You're Pushing Age 80

Getting older according to conventional wisdom, means gravity takes over. Shoulders slump. Muscles wither. Bones thin. And, as the body slows down, vigor and enjoyment of life inevitably start to slip away too. Right?

Not necessarily, it turns out. After all, strategies to counter the physical bumps and slumps of passing years have been effectively practiced in other parts of the world for centuries.

In many regions of Asia, for example, traditional healers encourage middle-aged and older people to get moving. The result is that large groups of people gather daily on village squares or in community centers to participate in gentle (yet physically demanding) traditional exercises such as tai chi and qigong. In India and other regions of the world, various types of yoga have long been anti-aging mainstays.

And now, mainstream Western scientists are finally tuning in to the power and possibility of these ancient Eastern exercises, especially since high-quality studies are now showing how well they foster balance and stability in older people. Classes to teach these traditional exercises are springing up across the United States. Even the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is researching the benefits of such exercise.

What accounts for this shift in attitude about what older people can do?

Cultivating a New Approach

One specialist on fitness and aging--Tufts University nutritionist Miriam E. Nelson--traces the new awareness of the benefits of exercise in older people to groundbreaking research done in the 1990s. Pivotal studies focused on strength training in 90-year-olds and also in sedentary postmenopausal women. Perhaps because the results were published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), once-skeptical doctors took note of the research.

Other publications were quick to endorse the findings as well. "There is no segment of the population that can benefit more from exercise than the elderly," counsels an exercise training guide published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Keeping the body in shape as it ages, the guide concludes, not only minimizes physical frailty in an older population, but can also sometimes reverse debilitating symptoms.

Bottom line: For anyone heading into their later years, alternative practitioners and modern scientists now agree that there's no reason not to combine the best of both East and West to ensure greater balance, stability, and strength.

Finding Balance with Tai Chi

Surveys have shown that many older people become so anxious about losing their balance and falling that they stop taking walks or doing any exercise at all. In actual fact, there's reason to be nervous: Every year, nearly one in three Americans over age 65 experiences a bad fall, often a debilitating one. Ceasing to exercise isn't the answer, however. Improving one's sense of balance is.

It turns out that the ancient martial art of tai chi, a low-impact exercise that involves a series of flowing but deliberate movements, is particularly effective at improving balance. Multiple studies have demonstrated that the regular practice of tai chi not only dramatically improves equilibrium but also increases flexibility and confidence in movement. Many of these benefits stem from the constant shifting of weight involved in this traditional Asian exercise (which strengthens the legs) and from the focused breathing that the exercise demands.

In a 2000 article in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, researchers reported increased muscle strength and endurance (in the knee particularly) following the regular practice of tai chi by 32 elderly men and women. In a separate study, a 15-week course of tai chi classes taken twice weekly by relatively robust older adults nearly halved their risk of suffering multiple falls. In yet another trial, sedentary older men and women taking twice-weekly tai chi classes had a much easier time participating in activities like lifting, bending, and even hiking.

Encouraging Stability with Qigong and Yoga

To maintain good posture and balance in later years, stability exercises can be invaluable. Both qigong (pronounced "chee gung" and meaning "working with energy") and yoga have proved to be useful in enhancing stability.

An ancient Asian discipline that evolved from the martial art of tai chi, qigong is traditionally practiced to keep the body in harmony rather than as a method of self-defense. This exercise regimen (which many think is easier than tai chi to do) is believed to strengthen and cleanse the body--and ultimately help stability--through increased consciousness of breath, meditation, visualization, and repetitive physical movements.

Yoga too can provide notable benefits for strengthening the body and stabilizing balance even further. Although yoga should be initiated carefully to prevent injury, it can provide real mental and physical fitness over time. Researchers have found that regular yoga practice lowers breathing rates, increases flexibility, and promotes relaxation--all factors that can make you more conscious of where your body is in space, and hence feel more stable.

Building Strength with Weights

Doctors have long known that between ages 35 and 80, the body loses approximately a third of its muscle mass. The research of Tufts' Miriam Nelson and others, however, has now shown that getting active, no matter what your age, can do a lot to reverse this trend.

In the 1990 JAMA article that Dr. Nelson cites (above) as key to changing professional thinking about what older people can do, scientists at Tufts (not including Nelson) followed the progress of 10 frail nursing home residents, age 89-plus. These men and women agreed to lift weights three times a week for eight weeks--weights that were considerably heavier than those thought safe for people of their age. Instead of suffering broken bones and other catastrophes, these older people got measurably stronger--a lot stronger.

At the time, Nelson had been studying the impact of walking and other aerobic exercise on bone strength at the Center on Aging at Tufts. Eager to build on the excitement that the small preliminary study had generated, she recruited another group of participants--women aged 50 to 70--for a larger trial that included a control group. In 1994, JAMA again published the results. And again they were remarkable: After a year or more of progressive and increasingly challenging twice-weekly strength training--mostly weight lifting--the bodies of 20 postmenopausal and previously sedentary women were, in Nelson's words, "15 to 20 years more youthful."

The exercises had toned their bodies, improved their posture, increased their metabolism, and dramatically expanded the women's confidence to try new sports and other physical pursuits. Muscle replaced much of the fat. Bones got stronger and less vulnerable to fracture. Energy shot up. And the women enjoyed life more. In contrast, the 20 women in the control group who didn't do the strength training had started to slow down. Bone and muscle mass had dwindled. Energy levels had dropped, and the women were even more inactive than they had been before.

Making Your Move

Today, the message from both East and West is clear: Anyone, at any age, can get stronger and improve stability, balance, and strength with a few hours of manageable exercise each week. Just be sure to consult your doctor before starting your exercise program. A few tips follow:

 Tai chi
The benefits of tai chi are probably best experienced by taking one or two classes a week, and practicing regularly at home. These days, it's easier than ever to find a tai chi program or instructor in the United States, especially if you live in or near a major city. Look for an experienced instructor who has worked extensively with older people, and observe a class before signing up.

 Qigong
Although you can probably learn qigong in an intensive week-long or weekend course, many people prefer a longer introduction in a group class that meets once a week for eight to 10 weeks. Either way, experts suggest, maximum benefits come from doing qigong for at least 30 minutes every day. Many recommend practicing qigong with others, because it allows you to experience the collective energy of the group.

 Yoga
Look for a yoga class targeted to seniors, especially if you're just starting out. Many senior centers, health clubs, Y's, and community centers offer classes. Wherever you go, be sure to get a quality program geared to your needs. To prevent injury, steer clear of classes that emphasize difficult inverted poses and strenuous aerobic workouts.

 Strength training
Common sense dictates that it's critical to get good instruction before picking up 10-pound (or heavier) weights. Two 40-minute weight training sessions made the difference for many women who tried Dr. Miriam E. Nelson's approach to strength training. Dr. Nelson, a widely quoted book author, is currently director of the Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts; look for her books in bookstores or online. She also sponsors an informative web site, http://www.strongwomen.com, which men can benefit from as well.
For more detailed information on tai chi, qigong, and yoga, see these entries in the WholeHealthMD Reference Library. The Find a Practitioner feature on the WholeHealthMD home page may also help you track down a listing for a qualified instructor near you.

Date Published: 05/28/2003
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