There wasn't a more contentious issue on the minds of Canadians last week as the issue of the aging population came to the forefront of new headlines everywhere. The prime minister of Canada confirmed that his government is debating increasing the age of eligibility for the Old Age Security pension. Media reports hypothesized that the increase would be two years, raising the age to 67. Those two extra years would probably mean keeping people in the workforce longer and would lighten the immediate load on the OAS system.
Prime Minister Harper repeated that while no decisions are definite, the fact that Canada will have a lower percentage of its population working will inevitably become a significant economic issue. The "aging of the population and the shrinking of the labour force is a serious economic challenge for Canada, as it is for other countries." Harper said.
And with this debate circulating by the political pundits, what better topic to devote this week's column to than why running, or exercise, can be beneficial to the said aging population of Canada.
I have read, watched, and heard so many tales of people running marathons when they are well into their 80s, and 90s. Although this is on the extreme side of the spectrum, I have also seen many elderly people taking part in yoga classes at the gym, mall walking, and other classes devoted to their demographic. And I (although it will be many years from now) intend to participate in those classes.
My roommates laughed at me last year when I took a complimentary water aerobics class. Yes, I did bring down the age average significantly as I bopped and splashed besides ladies with shower caps and frilly skirts on their bathing suit, but by the end of the class I was both sore, and quite invigorated!
Many people think they're too old to start an exercise program. They think it's unsafe because they have heart disease or diabetes or because they're too out of shape to start. But you're never too old to start says Tufts University's Miriam Nelson. “Many people think they're too old to start an exercise program," she says. “They think it's unsafe because they have heart disease or diabetes or because they're too out of shape to start." But, in one Tufts study, nursing-home residents, whose ages ranged from 72 to 98, were monitored for ten weeks. After just ten weeks, strength-training improved their muscle strength, ability to climb stairs, and walking speed.
There are many myths circulating about aging and exercise that have stopped the elderly from exercising. One of them being that exercise can be more of a risk rather than a benefit, for example it puts you at risk of falling down. But, regular exercise, builds strength and stamina, and prevents loss of bone mass and improves balance, which would actually reduce your risk of falling. Another myth has to do with some of the population who are chair bound and think they can't exercise sitting down. However, because the aging population is such a prominent issue these days, there have been programs designed for anything. Chair-bound people face special challenges but can lift light weights, stretch, and do chair aerobics to increase range of motion, improve muscle tone, and promote cardiovascular health. Exercise for seniors is amazing at improving immune function, heart health, blood pressure, bone density, and digestive functioning. Seniors who exercise also have a lowered risk of several chronic conditions including diabetes, obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis, and colon cancer.
Benefits aren't just physical. Because exercise keeps the brain active, it can prevent memory loss, cognitive decline and dementia. Exercise has a protective effect on the brain may even help prevent Alzheimer's disease. One study of nearly 5,000 men and women over 65 years of age, showed that those who exercised were less likely to lose their mental abilities or develop dementia, including Alzheimer's. The inactive individuals were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's, compared to those who did activities at least three times a week. It has even been seen that even the light or moderate exercisers cut their risk significantly for Alzheimer's and mental decline.
Even beyond age 70, cardiovascular exercise can improve memory and reasoning skills. "People who have chosen a lifetime of relative inactivity can benefit mentally from improved aerobic fitness," said the study's lead author and cognitive neuroscientist Arthur Kramer. "We see selective cognitive benefits which accompany improvement in aerobic fitness."
For anyone, old or young, exercise improves strength, flexibility and posture, which helps with balance, coordination, and reducing the risk of falls. Strength training also alleviates the symptoms of chronic conditions such as arthritis. But most of all, one of the greatest benefits is the feeling of empowerment that comes with the gains made through a feeling of accomplishments. It builds a network of community and friendships. Many seniors are isolated, but by being part of a group will boosts moods and self-confidence. Many seniors feel discouraged by barriers, such as their age, health conditions or concerns. But the endorphins will reduce feelings of sadness or depression and by being active and feeling stronger will make seniors feel more self-confident and sure of themselves.
So if Harper is right and we are seeing an increase in the aging population- maybe it's because they are all exercising now! When I drive to work, I see lots of older people out for a walk with their dogs or just by themselves. I think- good for them! I hope that when I am older I can be active. Whether it be yoga or water aerobics, sometimes I think you can't afford not to be active. Maybe I'll be one of those grandmothers that can beat their grandchildren in races and takes them on 10 kilometre runs and yoga retreats. Hmmmm…. Interesting idea. Although, I probably wouldn't be their favourite grandmother but I'll make sure to make it up to them on their birthdays. After all- what else are grandmothers for?