Everyone knows that exercise has many benefits. Proper exercise keeps the body healthier, and it actually generates more energy than not exercising. Further, the regularly exercised body is better equipped to fight off sickness and disease. Exercise causes the body to release compounds called endorphins. These compounds increase well-being and can even act as painkillers to reduce discomfort from ailments or injury. What's more, exercise has tremendous benefits in the arena of mental ability. People who exercise regularly think more clearly and perform better on cognitive tasks than those who do not.
What does this mean for seniors? Should they make regular exercise a priority, even though they may not have made it a point in their earlier years? Studies show that seniors should engage in regular exercise, with a caveat. Seniors, particularly those who were not active in their middle-age years, should try to keep their exertion in the light to moderate range rather than engaging in high intensity exercise (which may lead to overexertion).
The benefits of exercise are undisputed. What's more, research has shown that moderate exercise can be just as beneficial--even for younger people--as intense exercise. Given that a person can maintain a moderate level of exertion for longer periods of time than intense exertion, arguably the best path is to engage in moderate exercise on a regular basis.
The benefits of moderate exercise continue even after the exercise session has come to an end. Elevated endorphin levels, stronger immune response, and a faster metabolism are all benefits that continue around the clock. What's more, the cardiovascular benefits of moderate exercise rival those of intense bouts of exercise.
Seniors do best to exercise moderately or lightly on a regular basis and avoid overexertion when possible. Studies have shown that there can actually be a higher mortality rate in elderly people who exercise too strenuously.
Researchers Cheung et al. found that seniors who frequently overexerted were more likely to die from heart-related conditions than seniors who regularly engaged in moderate exercise. The researchers theorized that high intensity exercise, at least when engaged in too frequently, could actually reverse the benefits of exercise. In spite of exercise being known to augment health, too much exercise may shorten the life spans of seniors.
Of course, this does not mean that seniors should avoid exercise altogether. There is no doubt that regular exercise (of moderate intensity) will lengthen a senior's lifespan, increase his or her quality of life, and perhaps enable longer term independence. Regular light to moderate exercise may well be the closest thing seniors have to a fountain of youth. However, seniors should limit the frequency of their high-exertion exercise.
More research is needed to pinpoint why overexertion can increase the mortality rates of seniors. Yet understanding some of the potential causes may assist seniors in developing their own exercise regimens.
One issue may have to do with the buildup of arterial plaque in the human body. Throughout life, a person will begin to accrue a deposit of plaque inside his or her arteries. This is a result of a number of factors. Some, such as genetics, are completely out of one's control. Conversely, others, such as diet and frequency of exercise, are lifestyle choices.
At any rate, although the rate varies, all people have some degree of plaque buildup. These deposits can reduce bloodflow or even block it entirely. As such, given that seniors will almost always have a greater degree of buildup than younger people, strenuous exercise may cause increased blood pressure or even cause pieces of the plaque to break off and become lodged elsewhere, leading to a stroke or heart attack.
Whatever the reason, the research is clear. Seniors should exercise regularly. However, they should endeavor to keep their exercise intensity at a low or moderate level. Doing so will help them enjoy the benefits of exercise while protecting them from the adverse consequences of overexertion.
Cheung, Y.K., et al. (2016). Leisure-Time Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Mortality in the Elderly Population in Northern Manhattan: A Prospective Cohort Study. Journal of General Internal Medicine. DOI: 10.1007/s11606-016-3884-y. Available at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-016-3884-y. Last visited October 23, 2016.
Wilson, M., Ellison, G., Cable, N. (2015). Basic science behind the cardiovascular benefits of exercise. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(2). Available at http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/50/2/93.abstract. Last visited October 23, 2016.