We would all like to stay young. But the reality is that at some point, our bodies degenerate. Despite of the physical changes that come with aging, health experts note that it is possible to evade some old age-related complications.
Dr James Kigera, an orthopaedic specialist and vice chair of the Kenya Orthopaedic Association says if you want to enjoy good physical health as you age, start preparing early.
“How much you are able to do in old age will largely depend on the effort you put in your younger years,” he says.
He states that bone mass (quantity and strength) usually increases until about 30 years before it begins to decrease.
Whereas the decline rate usually happens at a uniform rate in men, Dr Kigera says that women tend to experience intense reduction in bone mass during menopause due to lower oestrogen hormone levels.
As bone quantity and strength declines, people experience back pain and frequent fractures. They also lose height over time and may develop a stooped posture.
Franklyn Lujaja, a fitness and wellness coach at Fitlife Kenya says that exercises that can help strengthen bones include hiking, jogging, playing tennis, rope jumping, stair climbing and doing high impact aerobic or weight lifting.
Even though these exercises help in old age, Dr Kigera says that it is better to start doing them when young as they help people accumulate high levels of bone mass that come in handy later on.
“With the high levels, you will be going through bone loss but still have some good amount left to cushion you from adverse health outcomes in old age.”
Good bone health lowers the risk of osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis which are common among the elderly.
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Squats, leg presses
Aside from the physical exercises, Dr Kigera says that having sufficient calcium levels in the body is also important for good bone mass.
Body muscles also weaken as people age. But Mr Lujaja notes that people can manage this problem through resistance exercises that strengthen muscles such as shoulder and leg press workouts, push-ups and squats.
It is important to incorporate mobility and flexibility exercises like Pilates, yoga and Tai-chi to help loosen muscles and tendons that tend to tighten, causing stiffness in old age.
Numerous studies show that Tai-chi, which is an ancient Chinese practise involving gentle movements, guards against falls which are a primary cause of traumatic death for older adults.
Protein shakes — previously a preserve of young fitness fanatics— are also helpful.
A recently published study in the PLOS One journal showed that a potent mix of whey protein, creatine, calcium, vitamin D and fish oil fight muscle loss and boost strength of older people.
“Exercises alone can’t work. You need a well-balanced diet of complex carbohydrates, high quality proteins and lots of fruits and vegetables,” says coach Lujaja.
Dr Kigera says that the cardiovascular reserve (which refers to the capacity of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the body during exercise) also declines as people age hence making it difficult for many older people to keep fit.
“But if you manage to build a good reserve through cardiovascular exercises when you’re still young, then you should potentially be able to exercise vigorously even in old age.”
He cites an example of older athletes in their 60s or 70s often seen participating in various international marathons.
“These are individuals who have been running for over 30 years or thereabouts. They began doing this early and so their bodies have adapted to the long distance running.”
Nevertheless, he notes that older people can still boost their cardiovascular (cardio) health through exercises that increase the heart rate or cause the heart to race a little bit.
These cardio workouts may include brisk walking to a point where sweat breaks, jogging or running and swimming.
Older people with hypertension and heart diseases should do the exercises with caution.
“Before starting any fitness routine, you need to know your medical status. Talk to your doctor to ensure that whatever exercise you are doing doesn’t jeopardise any health condition you are dealing with.”
As much as it is good to have fitness targets, coach Lujaja states that older people should never push themselves to levels that cause them pain and discomfort.
To tackle the challenge of social isolation and loneliness, he urges senior citizens to take up group fitness sessions and outdoor activities like hikes that enable them meet new friends and interact.