All this year, ideastream’s Be Well health series is focused on obesity and the health problems associated with it. Many experts say it’s crucial to instill good eating and exercise habits in the younger generation, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are a lost cause. In this next installment of our series, ideastream’s Anne Glausser looks at an often neglected group, when it comes to weight management and physical activity: seniors.
Francine Hekelman is Cleveland, born and raised. I met her at a recent conference on healthy aging, hosted by Case Western.
She’s now 71 and volunteers with hospice, works with med students, and loves going out with friends.
HEKELMAN: We go to plays together, we go to the theater together, we go to the symphony, once in a while we just go have a drink.
She can’t imagine just sitting around.
HEKELMAN: I think it’s important to get out of the house, and I think it’s important to be able to drive and to be independent as long as you can.
Staying independent in later life is a concern for many people.
And something that puts it at risk? Sitting in front of a television.
This is because inactivity spurs chronic disease and disability, the very things that can degrade the golden years and leave people unable to care for themselves.
To ward this off, doctors have a pretty simple prescription: exercise.
ROIZEN: Exercise in mid and later life, the data are remarkable…
That’s Cleveland Clinic wellness guru Dr. Michael Roizen, who spoke at a recent City Club forum.
ROIZEN: Decreases heart attacks by 55%, decreases heart failure deaths by 65%, decreases infection rate by 95%, decreases cancer deaths by 45%, decreases…the most important thing you can do for your brain isn’t those games, it isn’t listening to WCPN, it is actually doing exercise while you listen to WCPN.
Clevelander Francine Hekelman takes this advice to heart.
She says she’s slightly overweight so she makes sure she’s active:
HEKELMAN: I work out three times a week, I walk. I’d like to increase it.
What she doesn’t do is plop down on the couch.
But she’s kind of an outlier: inactivity among seniors is a common problem.
And unused muscles waste away.
On top of this, the body naturally loses muscle and bone mass as it ages.
It’s replaced by fatty tissue; this phenomenon even has a name, sarcopenia. Its telltale sign is skin sagging off the legs and arms.
Heart rate and energy requirements also decrease with age—older adults don’t need as many calories as before.
These physical changes occur during what can be also be an emotionally stressful time of transition: people retire, couples might split up, kids leave the nest. These life changes can bring on weight gain.
And experts like Evelyn Duffy say it’s important to help older adults manage these transitions in a healthy way and build new routines.
DUFFY: Maybe going to the mall and walking around the mall. There’s whole organized groups of people that are mall-walkers. And that’s a good safe place to exercise, or joining a program at the Y or some other facility that’s specifically designed for seniors.
Duffy is a Case professor and Nurse Practitioner who works with older adults.
She tells me about a patient whose weight brought on a lot of difficulty in the later years.
DUFFY: She literally wouldn’t fit on her toilet anymore, in her little tiny bathroom, in her older home in the inner city neighborhood. And you can actually get an extra-wide portable toilet, and so that is what she used. And then she had to have somebody come in and empty it for her, and if wasn’t for that one thing, she could have potentially been living independently still.
This kind of story hits home with our aging population, she says.
DUFFY: Baby boomers need to take that as a strong message.
But here’s the good news, and I’ll let the Clinic’s Dr. Roizen deliver it.
ROIZEN: You get a do-over at any age.
He says research shows less active 65 year olds who up their activity can get some pretty remarkable results.
ROIZEN: Basically, you reduce your death rate by 60%, and your disability even greater than that.
So it seems your best bet for a long, independent life may be to lace up your sneakers, and get moving.