Sitting is the new smoking – remember that headline from not too long ago? Medical experts continue to sound the alarm regarding the health dangers of sitting too long during the day, including increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. These dangers only increase as we age; and yet according to the AARP, a whopping 60% of Americans 64 and over are considered sedentary. While it’s enough to consider the known advantages of staying active, the plus side of exercise for seniors extends well beyond disease prevention to include a whole host of benefits.
Before we get into what those are, it’s worth touching on the blurred lines around what’s considered actual exercise versus physical activity. Getting your body moving through activities like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, gardening, or walking the dog are helpful but not considered exercise by the medical community. Physicians classify exercise as structured and repetitive activity that causes physical exertion – tai chi, yoga, water aerobics, power walking – that is practiced regularly and at a consistent pace.
So – beyond muscle strength and overall improved health, what are the unexpected benefits that active seniors can expect?
- Improved Memory Recall – In a recent study, women 70-80 who exercised aerobically twice a week demonstrated marked improvement in verbal and spatial memory recall – and these women had already been showing signs of mild cognitive impairment. They scored significantly higher in memory tests than those participants who lifted weights or didn’t exercise at all.
- Enhanced Motor Memory: Another recent research project sought to find a connection between physical exertion and the brain’s ability to learn a new skill. In it, participants engaged in a single bout of exercise before learning a task. Researchers found their muscle memory recall was far better, and they were able to master the assigned task more quickly, than the subjects who tried the new skill without exercising.
- Faster Wound Healing: As our bodies age, they tend to heal at a slower rate, mostly because of circulatory changes. Doctors at Ohio State University recently wanted to see if exercise helped accelerate this healing process. In their study, the OSU researchers administered a minor flesh wound to a group of willing seniors, some of whom exercised regularly three times a week for three months. The doctors found that those seniors in the exercise group had their wounds heal an average of 25% faster than the seniors who abstained from physical activity.
- Improved Executive Functioning: There’s been quite a bit of research pointing to the role of exercise in overall improved cognitive function; there are also lots of studies that now point to its boosting effect on something called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which helps stimulate the creation of new brain cells. Multiple studies are showing BDNF levels rising in seniors who exercise regularly, along with what seems to be a corresponding improvement in attention levels, working memory, and the ability to multitask.
To read more about healthy aging, head to the NIH Senior Health Page.