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The Best Years of Our Lives: Exercise: Yes, we have to face up to it

“I am responsible for the way I age”

This ‘moment of truth’ fully revealed itself to me at the age of 60, when I found myself clutching my daughter’s arm for stability as we walked through the cobbled streets in the old walled city of Istanbul. I heard myself say, “Have you noticed there are no old people about, this would be really difficult for the disabled or elderly.” Then, I realised the significance of what I had said.

That image of myself as a rickety, prematurely old and dependant person led me to a decision. I may have been 60 in years, but in my head I was 40. I would push back the neglect of many years by getting fit. I joined the gym on my return and found the routine of fitness training did not come naturally – as I treaded the treadmill I would think how much easier it would have been if I had begun an exercise regime earlier.

Belly dancing for fitness at Bellizone

Ten years later and I still regularly exercise. My exercise of choice is pilates for strength and balance, aqua aerobics for general fitness, walking the dog, and gardening. The routine carries me along and my body thanks me for my efforts; I’m probably fitter and healthier than I was at 40.

Roy J. Shephard of the Dept. of Preventive Medicine and Biostatistics, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, describes the progression from young adulthood through to old age.

“Young adulthood typically covers the period from 20-35 years of age, when both biological function and physical performance reach their peak. During young middle-age (35-45 years), physical activity usually wanes, with a 5-10 kg accumulation of body fat. Active pursuits may be shared with a growing family, but it becomes less important to impress either an employer or persons of the opposite sex with physical appearance and performance.

“During later middle-age (45-65 years), women reach the menopause, and men also substantially reduce their output of sex hormones. Career opportunities have commonly peaked and a larger disposable income often allows energy demanding domestic tasks to be deputied to service contractors. The decline in physical condition thus continues and may accelerate.

“In early old age (65-75 years), there may be a modest increase of physical activity, in an attempt to fill free time resulting from retirement. By middle old age (75-85 years), many people have developed some physical disability, and in the final stage (very old age, over 85 years) they become totally dependent. A typical expectation is of 8-10 years of partial disability and a year of total dependency.”

Dr Shephard acknowledges the wide inter-individual differences at any given chronological age. “In terms of maximal oxygen intake, muscle strength and flexibility, the best preserved 65 year old may out-perform a sedentary 25 year old. Whether assessing fitness for continuing employment or recommending an exercise prescription, decisions should thus be based upon biological rather than chronological age. Because [for the normal older person] initial fitness is quite low, the aerobic condition of a senior can be improved by low intensity of training.”

Very wide range of choices

All of the exercise programmes for the 50+ age group in Hawke’s Bay that I researched (see side box) were age appropriate, and will restore strength and fitness while providing for socialisation and fun – and the social component of group exercise is a great motivator for most people. Courses cost between $2-$10 a session.
Organised sport is an option for many reasonably fit and motivated people playing lawn bowls, croquet, tennis, cycling, walking and tramping. Run Walk Hawke’s Bay is a running and walking club that aims to motivate and assist people to run or walk within their capabilities – the majority of members are aged over 45 and very social.