Active aging is essential for keeping your quality of life as high as possible for as long as possible. But what, exactly, is active aging and how does it help keep you healthy as you age? Our resident exercise physiologist breaks it down for you!
As an exercise scientist, I get the pleasure of working with people from all walks of life. Individuals with a variety of different training goals.
People who want to lose a few pounds and look better naked. People who want to get as strong as humanly possible. Hell, even people who want to run marathons and become much faster (and more efficient) runners.
While I certainly enjoy helping people work towards any training goal, I must admit that I have a special place in my heart for one group in particular.
People who want to improve their quality of life.
What the heck am I talking about?
Well, let me tell you a bit of a story that should help clarify things.
I have recently been seeing a new client who, from here on out, I am going to be referring to as “Jane” (just to be clear — this isn’t her real name).
Jane came to work with me because over the last few years she had started noticing a slight deterioration in her ability to manage daily tasks. For example, walking up stairs had become a real challenge. Her grandchildren were getting a little too heavy to pick up. And to top it all off, her lower back was becoming increasingly painful for no apparent reason.
In her words, her age was starting to “catch up to her”.
Now, as with all my clients, I took her through a thorough assessment. We went through the process of identifying her individual goals and then doing an in-depth musculoskeletal assessment to identify her movement capabilities and any joint restrictions she may have.
Positively, she didn’t have any abhorrent issues worth mentioning. Well, with the exception of one.
She was weak.
In fact, I would go as far as to say, she was very weak.
So, as a result, we have spent the last 12 weeks working hard, twice per week, on simply getting Jane stronger. There is no magic here. We are simply focusing on key functional movements in the gym and adding load in a safe and effective manner.
And the results have been impressive, to say the least.
Jane has added quite a bit of weight to her squat and can now do 3 sets of 10 Bulgarian split squats with a 20-pound dumbbell in each hand. And she can hold a very good plank for 45 seconds.
But more importantly, she is feeling better.
Attacking stairs are easier, her grandchildren are feeling lighter (despite getting bigger by the day!), and her back is feeling immeasurably better.
In short, her quality of life has improved out of sight — and it is only going to improve further.
Unfortunately, this is not how most people experience aging.
Typically, aging is accompanied by significant reductions in health and function, drops in strength, and rapid declines in quality of life.
Which is why active aging is so darn important.
What Does Aging Normally Look Like for Your Body?
In modern society, the amount of physical activity we are forced to do on a daily basis is negligible at best. We no longer have to grow our own vegetables, walk to work, or even vacuum our own homes (cheers, Roomba!).
In short, if we don’t actively choose to engage in strenuous physical activity in our spare time, we will never undertake it.
Now, while it is hard to argue that our lives becoming more convenient is a bad thing, the lack of physical activity associated with it certainly is.
In fact, it is ensuring that we lose muscle mass at a highly accelerated rate starting at a far earlier point in our lives than we need to. And, unfortunately, with this accelerated muscle loss comes premature (and large!) age-related reductions in muscle strength and declines in functional capacity.
Combine this with much faster drops in cardiovascular and metabolic health and you have a recipe for disaster.
Ultimately, the lack of physical activity in our daily lives is accelerating the aging process — and it has made normal aging look terribly unattractive from every perspective.
What is Active Aging?
Taking the above into consideration, I want to address a concept known as “active aging” (or, as people would have called it 100 years ago, “aging”).
“Active aging” is a relatively new term used to describe the maintenance of good physical, social, and emotional health throughout the entire aging process.
A clear definition has been provided by the World Health Organization (or WHO, for short):
“[Active aging is] the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age.”
In my mind, this means taking steps to keep physically active across the lifespan, ensuring that physical function is maintained and quality of life stays high.
This, in turn, means exercising regularly and exercising the right way, using a potent combination of weight training and aerobic activity to keep you healthy and functioning.
How Does Your Body Benefit from Staying Active as You Age?
Choosing to participate in active aging benefits your body in a number of different ways. The most important of these are the maintenance of:
Active Aging and Metabolic Health
So, exercise is known to be one of the most beneficial things that you can do for your body — and one of the reasons is because it increases the health of your muscle tissue. But did you know that healthy muscle tissue can protect your metabolic health?
Healthy muscles have the ability to cause long term improvements in both your blood sugar levels and your insulin sensitivity. As a result, active aging essentially protects you from the development of diabetes.
A neat little bonus of this that occurs by increasing your muscle health and your daily energy expenditure by moving regularly is that active aging can aid weight management (another great way to boost metabolic health!).
Active aging simply staves off unwanted weight gain. And I don’t think you would find too many people unhappy about that, would you?
Active Aging and Cardiovascular Health
The benefits of exercise associated with active aging don’t stop at metabolic health. It can also have a huge impact on the health of your cardiovascular system, as well!
There is a huge amount of evidence to suggest that exercise in later life can lower blood pressure and improve your blood cholesterol levels in a very big way — both of which can help prevent the onset of cardiovascular disease.
Active Aging and Mental Health
It probably seems quite obvious that active aging can improve your physical health. But did you realize that it can improve your mental health, too?
Research has shown that exercise can cause lasting improvements in your cognitive function as well as both your short- and long-term memory. It can also prevent Alzheimer’s disease and can seriously limit your risk of developing depression and anxiety.
And, as an added bonus, partaking in exercise in a group environment can also increase social interaction, further improving mood and sensations of general well-being.
Talk about bang for your buck!
Active Aging and Functional Capacity
Finally, active aging seriously increases your ability to function every single day.
Both weight-bearing exercise and weight-training have the ability to cause improvements in the strength of your muscles. This strength is what allows you to navigate your life and dominate any physical challenges that come your way.
Think of Jane from our introduction.
In this manner, active aging and exercise can seriously enhance your capacity to perform normal daily tasks (well into your golden years, I should add), reduce your risk of falling (and potentially injuring yourself), and even improve how you perceive your life.
Amazingly, there is even research showing that those individuals who exercise regularly across the lifespan actually maintain their independence for longer! No assisted living facility anywhere on the horizon!
Talk about improving your quality of life big time!
Take Home Message
Active aging describes the process of ensuring that you keep yourself physically active for as long as you possibly can. In doing so, you reduce your risk of disease and illness, stave off mental health issues, and maximize your quality of life.
Seriously, do you even need any more reasons to get moving right now?
Want to learn more about how to stay healthy as you age? Check out the rest of our Healthy Aging series today!