If you were born between 1946 and 1964, congratulations! You’re a part of the most discussed demographic group in history. You’re a part of the most socially active, wealthiest and physically fit generation in history. By the sheer weight of your numbers, you have changed the world to fit your view of it.
You are a baby boomer, doggone it, and as you get older, you may be determined to follow the advice of poet Dylan Thomas:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Refusing to admit one’s elderly status, while admirable, has caused more than a few back pains among the baby boomer generation. This is due to another particularly salient attitude which this high profile group holds that muscles and bones respond positively to physical exertion. More than a few boomers have stated the mantra: I must use it or lose it!
Is this aggressive strategy of vigorous physical training the best way to fend off the debilitating aspects of old age? Or, does this activity wear away the joints and muscles, making them more likely to be susceptible to injuries and diseases such as osteoarthritis? We spoke with Dr. Theodore Belanger, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Texas Back Institute, to get some insights into the benefits and problems of vigorous exercise on older bodies.
The Benefits of Vigorous Physical Training
Many individuals who are 55 years and older have vigorously exercised throughout their entire lives. This includes aggressive running and swimming programs, competitive athletics such as basketball and strength training using weights and other devices. Dr. Belanger agrees there are many advantages to this type of vigorous physical training.
“The medical literature on weight training in older patients shows many positive outcomes,” he notes. “Better blood pressure numbers, increase in muscle mass, better balance because of this muscle strength and better cardio vascular health are all possible outcomes for programs such as weight training. However, there are also downsides to this type of activity.” More on this later.Many reputable sources for fitness program geared to those whose age is greater than 55 years, list a number of advantages of vigorous strength training. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is the federal agency assigned to track disease and health research, notes, “Strength training, particularly in conjunction with regular aerobic exercise, can also have a profound impact on a person’s mental and emotional health.”The CDC points to the following advantages of regular strength training. Click here for more details.The Restoration of Balance and Reduction of FallsAs people age, poor balance and flexibility contribute to falls and broken bones. Strengthening exercises with a full range of motion increase a person’s flexibility and balance, which decrease the likelihood and severity of falls.
Strengthening of Bone
Post-menopausal women can lose 1-2% of their bone mass annually. Results from a study conducted at Tufts University, which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1994, showed strength training increases bone density and reduces the risk for fractures among women aged 50-70.
Proper Weight Maintenance
Strength training is crucial to weight control; because individuals who have more muscle mass have a higher metabolic rate. Muscle is active tissue that consumes calories while stored fat uses very little energy.
Improved Glucose Control
More than 14 million Americans have type II diabetes and the numbers are steadily climbing. Studies now show lifestyle changes such as strength training have a profound impact on helping older adults manage their diabetes. .
Healthy State of Mind
The CDC notes strength training provides similar improvements in depression as anti-depressant medications.
People who exercise regularly enjoy improved sleep quality. They fall asleep more quickly, sleep more deeply, awaken less often, and sleep longer.
Healthy Heart Tissue
Strength training is important for cardiac health because heart disease risk is lower when the body is leaner. One study found cardiac patients gained not only strength and flexibility but also aerobic capacity when they did strength training three times a week as part of their rehabilitation program.
Vigorous Exercise and the Onset of Arthritis
The CDC analysis of strength training also touched on a subject that is critically important to aging baby boomers – the onset of osteoarthritis. The agency notes regular strength training can help reduce the impact and even onset of osteoarthritis. However, some other experts have noted the wear and tear of strength training and punishing running programs, weaken the joints and make them more vulnerable to osteoarthritis.
We asked Dr. Belanger about how vigorous exercise might affect arthritis. He said, “At least 90% of arthritis is due to aging or genetics. While it is possible to help control how arthritis affects you with exercise and fitness, there is some question if it is worth the effort. In a Norway study of 10,000 twins, where one twin was very physically active and one was sedentary, an MRI administered when they were older showed that the bones and joints of twins looked the same. In other words, the onset of arthritis had little to do with vigorous exercise and almost everything to do with the genes passed down from their parents.”
The Best Type of Exercise for Back Health
While Dr. Belanger agrees a regular program of physical training can help older bodies stay healthier, he cautions against that which is overly vigorous. He advises, “Low impact exercises such as yoga, pilates, walking and swimming, where the back is engaged but not aggressively stressed, offer the highest benefit to someone who is older. With weight training, particularly if it is unsupervised by an instructor, there are many opportunities for injury such as torn rotators or even herniated discs.”
He also noted, “Every person is different, genetically and otherwise. This means that there is no ‘one size fits all’ fitness program. If there are any doubts about embarking on a fitness training regime, please have a conversation with one of the physicians at Texas Back Institute and make sure your back is healthy enough for the exercise program.”