For more than a decade I’ve been speaking and writing on how fitness promotes longevity. It seemed back then, and actually far before then, that research and common sense taught that being fit as a “baby boomer” meant staying healthier and active longer. As Wallace Stegner once put it, “If you’re going to get old, you might as get as old as you can.”
About 73 million Americans born from 1946 to 1964 currently in the US, have lived through world wars, polio, flus, the first television, a walk on the moon, the British Invasion of music, Vietnam, civil unrest protests, the assassinations of President Kennedy, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, drug experimentation, financial blows, the gasoline crisis, “60 is the new 70,”and now…COVID-19.
According to Walter M. Bortz II, M.D., in his epic work, Dare to be 100, “There is now a sufficient fund of data and experience to allow baby boomers— and, of course, younger generations—to plan their 100th birthday party with calm assurance, prepare the guest list, and muster enough respiratory reserve to blow out all those candles.” Dr. Bortz breaks down the word DARE as part of the secret to longevity: diet, attitude, relationships and exercise.
The CDC has informed us “that older adults and persons with underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems might be at greater risk for severe illness from this virus.” In fact, according to Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, recently said, “People who are over 60 years old, as well as those with underlying health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease, are more vulnerable to getting sick or even dying from the novel coronavirus and should take particular precautions to help protect themselves.”
As if this pandemic isn’t enough, boomers have also had to prepare for four key “aging shocks”: a) uncovered costs of prescription drugs, b) the costs of medical care that are not paid by Medicare or private insurance, c) the actual costs of private insurance that partially fills in the gaps left by Medicare, and d) the uncovered costs of long-term care.
During this pandemic, we are all, perhaps particularly boomers, challenged to avoid becoming “doomers.” A key to avoid this declining mindset is living a fully active life with a “regardless” mindset, one that is filled with high hopes of living a long time, to 100. Dr. Bortz tells us that “most of the changes commonly associated with older people are not really dependent on the passage of time; they result mostly from disuse.” He further tells us, “Who you get to be—how old, wise, competent, creative, sexy, fun you become—depends on how you plan. Decrepitude and loss are not predetermined. How you… set your course is highly predictive of the journey you will take.”
While COVID-19 presents unusual health challenges to boomers, we know that endurance, strength, balance and flexibility are important steps in boosting the immune system, reducing stress, preventing weight gain, and improving sleep. Maintaining immunity in older age is a key factor in health promotion, and especially now. And it appears that exercise, physical activity, not too much, daily, is a key factor in boosting immunity.
The word COVID spells out steps to help strengthen immunity.
C – Catnaps (healthy, restorative sleep).
O – Optimism (key emotion to help prevent depression).
V – Vigor (physical activity).
I – Intake (adequate nutrition and maintaining oral hygiene).
D – Distancing.
Dr. Bortz tells us, “Three hours of life can be gained for every hour spent exercising—a good bargain, no? Each bout of sweating is accompanied by a surge in the production of body molecules called catecholamines, commonly known as adrenalin. These same compounds are not found in abundance in the nervous system of depressed people. Exercise, too, has been shown to raise the levels of the upper-compound endorphins, which accompany euphoria and immunize against pain. These endorphins are probably behind the acknowledged addictive quality of exercise.”
According to Dan Buettner, who has done extensive research on the Blue Zones, the five areas in the world with pockets of people around the world with the highest life expectancy, or with the highest proportions of people who reach age 100, “The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.”
Keep in mind, “We don’t stop exercising because we get old, we get old because we stop exercising.” Older adults hurt themselves more through INactivity than through activity. Strength, flexibility, balance and endurance wither from INactivity. Physical activity can increase your healthy life-years and enable you to fully engage in life, adding years to your life and life to your years.
With definitive research demonstrating that activity helps forestall cognitive decline (dementia) and being fit keeps people healthier longer, it’s no wonder more boomers are staying more active. According to the gym industry, “In 2017, members used a fitness facility for an average of 98 visits. Members between the ages of 55 and 64 used a health club 111 times, while those ages 65 and older used a club 109 times.” This age group wants to be active, to boost their immune system, to live longer.
Once again from Dr. Bortz, “The tremendous value that physical exercise provides to your body is established beyond any reasonable doubt. Dr. Bob Butler said, ‘If there was a drug that provided all the benefits that exercise does, the whole world would be taking it.’ Of course, there is no such drug; the value of exercise must come from an activity program of your own devising and accomplishment. You cannot delegate exercise, and you can’t get something for nothing.”
From weight-related diseases, heart disease, anatomical and structural impairments, hypertension, osteoporosis, cholesterol, Alzheimer’s disease, sexual performance, loss of muscle mass and sociability, being at least moderately active is a key component in a positive health regimen for these ailments. Moderately active. That’s the key. Aristotle noted, “For both excessive and insufficient exercise destroy one’s strength, and both eating and drinking too much or too little destroy health, whereas the right quantity produces, increases or preserves it…This much then, is clear: in all our conduct it is the mean that is to be commended.”
Seek kinder, more personally fitting workouts, slow and longer warm-ups and cool-downs, exercise routines that emphasize diminished risk of injury and that promote posture, strength, endurance, flexibility, agility and balance to prevent normal biological changes caused by aging.
Physical activity has immediate benefits, including better sleep and less anxiety. It also helps reduce your risk of getting serious illnesses such as heart disease, type II diabetes, and depression. Here are some guidelines the US Department of Health and Human Services suggests:
- Try to do a variety of activities. This can make physical activity more enjoyable and reduce your risk of injury.
- Regular physical activity is still safe and good for you even if you have problems doing normal daily activities, such as climbing stairs or walking.
- Lots of things count. And it all adds up. Find what works for you.
- If you have to take a break from your regular activity routine due to an illness, be sure to start again at a lower level and slowly work back up to your usual level of activity.
- To get to and stay at a healthy weight, work your way up to doing the equivalent of 150 minutes (for example, 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. Keep in mind that you may need to do more activity or reduce the number of calories you eat to get to your desired weight.
Specifically, here are five types of exercise that promote mental alertness and can help to compress disability into as late as life as possible. No, these don’t include cosmetic surgery, expensive skin care regimens or hormone replacement—they don’t have the staggering amount of research that exercise does.
- Cardio – moderately intense aerobic activity for a minimum of 30 minutes five times per week or, if you can engage in more vigorous aerobic exercise, do that three times a week for a minimum of 20 minutes. Walking, swimming, treadmill, elliptical, and biking are examples of cardio exercise.
- Strength training – we lose 30% of our muscle strength between the ages of 50 and 70 years. Normally, adults who are sedentary beyond age 50 can expect muscle loss of up to 0.4 pounds a year. At least twice each week, engage in exercises designed to maintain or increase muscular strength and endurance including resistance training with machines or free weights.
- Flexibility training—here’s where stretching and range of motion exercises become important to connective tissue, so regular stretching at least twice each week for at least 10 minutes each time is recommended.
- Balance training – musculoskeletal injuries are the number one reason people seek medical help, with falls among the leading causes of death for the 65+ population. Backward and sideways walking, heel walking, toe walking are all fun ways to increase balance. Consider a workout ball or balance pad, with proper form and exercise options.
- Core training – these exercises strengthen your abs and other muscles that stabilize the spine, pelvis, and run the entire length of the torso. These muscles make it possible to stand, shift body weight and protect the back and hips. Exercises include abdominal bracing, contracting the abdominal muscles, along with plank exercises, hip lifts, and having fun with medicine balls, dumbells, kettlebells, Bosu Balls, even balance and wobble boards.
Of course, there’s another opinion. Isn’t there always another opinion when it comes to health? In his book, The Longevity Paradox: How to Die Young at a Ripe Old Age, Steven R. Gundry, M.D. quoted the “Godfather of Modern Fitness” Jack LaLane, “you need to do only two simple exercises to develop and maintain strength. Those two exercises are a) squats (or any type of deep knee bends) and b) planks or push-ups. Both exercises work against gravity, and together they stress every major muscle group in the body. Anyone at any fitness level can do them, and just a small investment of time will yield meaningful results.”
Dr. Gundry is concerned about doing too much when it comes to exercise. Thus, my long-standing mantra is, “Be active. Not too much. Everyday.” Will this prevent COVID-19? Nobody knows. But it likely will contribute to your “dying younger at a ripe older age.”