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Ageing and Fitness

As people live for longer, researchers have become more interested in the process of ageing, the special requirements of older people, and the factors causing some individuals to age quickly while others live a long, vigorous life with few health problems.

Some of the findings have been surprising : many of the symptoms that we associate with ageing, such as weight gain, decreased muscle tone and flexibility, diminished aerobic capacity, bone mineral loss, a slowing down of reflexes and depression, are not the inevitable results of growing older; they are more often symptoms of inactivity.

Much of the research on exercise and ageing has centered on aerobic capacity, as determined by your VO2max, or the measurement of the maximum capacity of your heart, lungs and muscles to transport and utilize oxygen. Your VO2max normally declines by about one per cent each year past the age of 30. However, with aerobic endurance training, the middle-aged and elderly can reclaim their aerobic capacity; well-conditioned individuals in their 60s and 70s often display the aerobic capacity of younger, sedentary people in their 20s. No drug can offer such promise for health and vigor as a program of exercise that includes aerobic activities.

It is never too late to improve your fitness. In a study of men aged 49 to 65 who embarked on a 30 to 45-minute-per-day walking and jogging program three days per week, researchers found that the men improved their average VO2max by 18 per cent after 20 weeks of training. With just five months of moderate aerobic training, the majority of these men were able to improve their condition significantly.

Besides improving your cardio-respiratory fitness and increasing lean body mass and muscle endurance, exercise may also help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels -- which tend to rise with age -- reduce stress and aid in weight control. Exercise also minimizes the tendency among older people to faint or lose their balance. In addition, weight-bearing activities such as brisk walking may help delay or prevent osteoporosis.

If you are currently exercising, you are probably taking the most effective step to stay vigorous and healthy. If you are sedentary and over 45, however, or if you smoke, have high bloat pressure or have not exercised regularly for two years or more, you should consult your doctor before you engage in strenuous exercise. Stop immediately if you feel any chest pain, dizziness or nausea. Also, avoid outdoor exercise in extreme heat or cold. Although you should expect minor aches and pains when you begin exercising, cut back if you feel discomfort.

The Council on Scientific Affairs in the U.S. recommends you start with brisk walking. Cycling, swimming and running are all excellent forms of exercise. Running, however, because of the high-impact pounding, may predispose older persons to bone and joint injuries if they are unaccustomed to it.

Although performing any amount of physical activity is better than none at all, you should aim for at least 20 minutes of sustained, vigorous exercise three times a week. The Council also suggests that you can benefit from activities such as stair climbing and gardening. 


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