Tuesday, May 17, 2011

aging and disuse




Aging is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we dread growing old, thinking it a time of forgetfulness and physical deterioration, then it is likely to be just that. On the other hand, if we expect to be full of energy and anticipate that our lives will be rich with new adventures and insights, then that is the likely reality. We prescribe who we are and what we are to become. Most, however, don’t question their perceptions of old age. Research shows that almost everything we have thought about growing old has been misleading. What we once considered to be marks of aging, we now know are the results of disuse or disease.

Nutrition is a key factor enabling healthy aging. It affects the way we look, feel and act. Do you really care about your well-being? Are you truly interested in nurturing your body? The food we eat can make the difference between ending the day with a feeling of freshness and zest or fatigue and exhaustion. We tend to eat too much of what we don’t need, and not enough of what we do need. As the body slows down, we need fewer calories than when we were younger. But we also need at least as many vitamins and minerals as before so choose a varied diet of nutritious foods, possibly lower on the food chain.

An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled ‘Disuse and Aging’, briefly stated, if you make a list of all the changes in the human body that are ascribed to aging—changes in the muscles, bones, brain, cholesterol, blood pressure, sleep habits, sexual performance, psychological whatnot, and so forth—and then make a similar list of changes due to physical inactivity, you will notice a surprising similarity between the two lists. The near duplication of the lists shows that many of the bodily changes we have always ascribed to the normal aging process are in fact cause by disuse. Good grief—they needed a STUDY to figure this out?! Simple observation and common sense should be enough to tell one something so obvious.

Evidence suggests that exercising regularly during middle age and beyond is an enormously effective way to promote just the sort of age boomers dream about—independent, robust and fee of chronic disease or disability. But one sure does not see much of this. If you had to pick one thing, one single thing that comes closest to the fountain of youth, then it would have to be exercise. It improves muscle tone, strength, flexibility, bone density, reaction time, clear thinking, and susceptibility to depression. Exercise improves the quality of your life. But how many older people do you see out there in the mornings exercising?

The sedentary life style of older people develops sedentary bodies that are ripe for degenerative diseases. The bottom line, reflected in dozens of studies, is that people who exercise, on average, live longer than those who don’t, with a reduced chance of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colon and breast cancers, depression, falls and even mental decline. Exercise seems to be one of the key factors that distinguish people who have a healthy old age from those who don’t. Being sedentary is a known risk factor for just about every poor health outcome. But, it just does not sink in. One just needs to get past being lazy and unmotivated.

One key aspect of exercise is the benefits of cardiovascular (aerobic) exercise. It goes beyond improving heart health. Regular cardio exercise may help fight many of the above problems and it boosts your energy and can help you sleep better. Most of the physiological systems in your body are favorably affected by cardiovascular exercise. If you are sedentary, just going for a daily walk will greatly improve your general health as well as your physical fitness. Work up to walking a mile in less than 20 minutes and then shoot for two miles. This is not merely a stroll—it is a brisk pace. Strolls don’t cut it.

Move it or lose it—flexibility is the key to vitality. How flexible are you? Can you look over your shoulder when backing up a car? Is it easy to get down on the floor to play with a child or pet? If you drop something on the floor, can you comfortably pick it up? From standing, roll down, letting your neck release so you head droops completely—can you touch your toes?
Though some tightening is inevitable over the years, there is a reliable way to keep the spring in your step—cultivate suppleness. It’s not just the capacity to touch your toes; it’s muscular freedom, the ability to flex and extend—something we would love to have as we get older. Most choose not to work at it, however. Those are the ones whining about how stiff they are. Well, duh! What it comes down to is—flexibility is the ability to move.

Stretching has one immediate result—as any cat knows, a slow stretch releases tension. When done properly, stretching helps reduce pain and stiffness and maintains flexibility as muscles and tendons tighten with disuse (some call it ‘aging’). It loosens the muscles and allows you a fuller range of motion.
Regular stretching that is treated as its own workout (not just at the end of exercise) also helps maintain or return flexibility that has declined with inactivity. The age-related stiffening (also called ‘disuse’) makes everything from standing up straight to getting out of bed harder. Stretching is the way to do something about it. Lost flexibility is a particular problem for older people, because inflexibility is linked to poor balance and an increased risk of dangerous falls.
Stretch just to the point of tension, then pausing for 30 seconds eases the tightening. Over time this lengthening and loosening increases the range of motion, the distance muscles and tendons can extend without injury or pain.

Of the three cornerstones of fitness—cardiovascular health, muscle strength, and flexibility—stretching earns the simplicity title hands down, and it gets the blue ribbon as the one activity most likely to prevent injury and extend a person’s active life. A good stretch can be had almost anywhere, anytime, with no special equipment or clothing. Could there be a simpler workout? BUT if your experience is like mine—the first month is going to be extremely humbling.

Improving your fitness habits is absolutely the key to independence and having some control of your life as you get up there in years. The recurring, science-proven theme in extending your life span and staying healthy is maintaining a regular exercise routine. NOT magic pills or potions or costly body-cleansing rituals. These last few options are quite popular however, probably due to the fact that they don’t take any effort. Hey, just continue to be delusional and pop another pill.

The kind of activities that lead to health grow from understanding and appreciation rather than from a grim sense of duty. It should not be sheer willpower and obligation that gets you out the door in the morning to exercise. Benefits to the body and spirit would be somewhat restricted. You would also be missing the point of a healthy lifestyle.

There’s a term, ‘self-efficacy’. That might be what aging is all about. It means maintaining competency, mastery, autonomy, independence. If, as we grow older, we give in to the opposite—dependency, incompetency and failure—we diminish the quality of our lives. Our aging is in our own hands. It is no one else’s responsibility. If we depend on our doctors, our families, our government or our companies to ensure its adequacy, we must accept whatever future they guide us to, and we risk compromising the quality of our lives. On the other hand, if we take charge of our lives, we can ensure that our future years are independent and active. We can actually LIVE our whole lives. Healthful living demands healthful life styles.

Remember—the ball is in your court. Pick it up.

I couldn’t decide which way to close. So…

It's never too late, in fiction or in life, to revise.
and
If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are headed.


RVwest article ‘Following a Free Spirit’
FOR INDEX OF POSTINGS GO TO JULY 2006

2 comments:

diana said...

Great post. Got me up to do my daily sit ups and push ups!

nwlambear said...

Just reading a little of your blog makes me put it on my "must read list". So I will be back. Until then....see you on the blogs. ((hugs)) Tricia