People are living much longer than they did a century ago, but in many cases this comes despite terrible lifestyles; it’s medical advancements that increase longevity for those disinclined to help themselves.
Conversely, the physically active don’t just live longer, they live better. And, as it turns out, they die better, too.
When you finally go downhill, you go fast. The period of sickness is shorter. (There’s even a phrase for it: compressed morbidity.)
This is good news. Think about it: Say you live to be 90, almost all the while in awesome shape. Wouldn’t you rather be spry right up to 89?
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When it comes to the less fit, they’re dying younger after an unpleasant and lengthy period of disability.
“People get into middle age, and their health begins to ratchet down, often due to specific diseases that frequently occur due to poor lifestyle: hypertension, diabetes, obesity and coronary artery disease,” said Dr. Mike Joyner, an expert in exercise physiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Being sedentary is a common cause for a lot of these diseases.
“Then what happens is that... they get progressively more disabled,” Joyner said. “By the time they’re in their 60s and 70s, they’ve become frail and have this long period of reduced functionality prior to death.” He explained that the biggest predictors of five-year life expectancy were things like grip strength, self-selected walking speed and how fast you get out of a chair.
“How early you start and how many years you keep exercising is probably more important than amount,” said Dr. Jim Fries, professor emeritus at Stanford University. “More exercise is better, but there are diminishing returns. And starting young is better than starting at 50, but starting at 50 is better than nothing.”
He explained that a solid effort in middle age could change your physiology to make it akin to a lifetime exerciser.
It’s not just aging that exercise delays – but death.
“Exercise adds 16 years in terms of postponing morbidity (illness) and nine years postponing mortality,” Fries said, referencing a 2012 research article he wrote for Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research.
James Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of bodyforwife.com.
Here’s what to do
Advice from Dr. Mike Joyner, an expert in exercise physiology:
You should commit to a combination of aerobic exercise, like running or cycling, but also strength and resistance training.
“Aerobic is more important in young and middle age, but older people don’t need a lot of aerobic capacity to go about their daily tasks. Seniors are more limited by musculoskeletal frailty.”
Resistance training improves bone strength and prevents falls, but it also makes it easier to look after yourself and stay out of the nursing home by being able to carry your own groceries and laundry basket or open your own jars.