It’s time for a change.
You may remember when being older was associated with frailty and rocking chairs, not new careers and adventure travel. A lot has changed over the past 20 years. Older adults today are looking at services and products to help them live a longer, healthier life. For example, the pharmacist Express Scripts recently revealed that older adults now spend more on products to combat the effects of aging—including mental alertness, sexual dysfunction, menopause, aging skin and hair loss—than they do on drugs to treat chronic disease.
This increased focus on healthy aging is the catalyst for a multitude of new products and services aimed at helping age 50%20 adults achieve a better quality of life. Yet, the most effective tool we have does not come in a pill bottle, requires a small investment of time and effort, and is accessible to almost anyone. I am speaking about physical activity.
Research shows that regardless of age, education, and socioeconomic or marital status, you can achieve a significantly higher quality of life if you increase your physical activity levels. Our challenge? Only 21% of men and women ages 25–64 years old meet the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. This percentage declines with age to 14.2% of people ages 65–74 years and 7.7% of those 75 years and older.
So, how do we get adults in their 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and older to achieve at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes (1.25 hours) of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week? Not to mention the Guidelines’ call for moderate- or high-intensity muscle-strengthening activities involving all major muscle groups on two or more days a week.
Maybe the first step is to “up the ante.”
Discussing seminal studies conducted with frail older adults at Tufts University in the 1990s, exercise science pioneer Dr. Steven Blair stated: “[These studies] show that you take older adults into the weight room and you push them. They don’t die; they double and triple their muscle strength and throw away their walkers.” He added, “If exercise was going to kill people, it would have killed that group.”
So, to reach the Guidelines and achieve significant health improvement benefits, we must challenge older adults to exercise more intensely to become stronger and walk longer. Doing anything less is a disservice to them—and to you. The message we need to absorb is that older people are not automatically fragile.
“It’s a myth that older adults are fragile and cannot exercise,” according to Dr. Blair. “Yes, there are frail individuals. Certainly, as you go up the age spectrum, you have more health issues and potential adverse events, but they are still pretty rare. A facility needs to be aware and have an emergency plan in place.”
If we are ever going to help older adults meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, we need to look at what we’re doing and change the way we help people get there.