Move it or Lose It: Physical Activity for Older Adults

DreamDr. Jane Thornton is a World Champion rower who can relate to the apprehension many older adults have towards physical exercise and sports. The Western University resident physician and Action Canada Fellow trailed behind as a 7-year-old in her hometown of Fredericton, NB.

Now 38, she told an appreciative audience at Ageing Well, A Public Education Day to Support Healthy Ageing at Toronto’s Ryerson University – “they had to lower the high jump bar for me when I was a girl.”

A few years later, she looked out her window to a group of rowers on the Saint John River. The sport grew into an outlet. She became physically fit, enjoyed the social aspect of being part of a team, and could concentrate better at school.

Thornton told the crowd at her seminar – Move it or Lose It: Physical Activity Guidelines and Recommendations for Older Adults – “I went from being a sedentary teenager who got winded running around the block to a healthy fit person with a new outlook on life.”

The Myth of Fighting Age

Ageing is related to a loss of function, balance, coordination, and muscle mass. Also, there’s a reduction in oxygen transportation into the blood.

“What we’re left with is the let’s fight age attitude,” said Thornton. “But our views about ageing and activity have changed. The fight concept is completely wrong – we now realize that much of the problem is with sedentary living, not age.”

EveAndrew Webbn with stable chronic conditions, older adults can embark on walking or swimming programs and light activities, “an over-the-counter zone,” according to Thornton. “Doctors can prescribe or talk to you about exercise, but light to moderate activities don’t generally need a referral to a specialist or trainer.”

Physical activity has a powerful effect on chronic disease and long term inflammation. Exercise, regardless of age, leads to lifelong improvement similar to the concept of neuroplasticity, the brain’s capability to restructure itself.

Even light activity improves cognition: such as memory, attention, and reactive skills. Thornton quoted Bruce Grierson, author of What Makes Olga Run – “For building cognition, Sudoku is a shovel, and exercise is a bulldozer.”

International Guidelines for Physical Activity

Dr. Thornton set out international guidelines for physical activity:

•      150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week

•      Or, 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week

•      Strength and balance training one or two times per week.

However, exercise is inadvisable under the following conditions:

•      Recent cardiac events or chronic cardiac problems

•      Uncontrolled metabolic conditions like diabetes

•      Acute systemic infection, accompanied by fever, body aches, or swollen glands.

Even with 20 minutes of weekly activity, there’s a sizeable gain to be had relative to being sedentary. Thornton recommended older adults start low and go slow and participate in group classes.

Dr. Thornton maintains a steady speaking schedule and serves on several Canadian athletic and health care councils. For a girl who struggled with sports and persevered to become a World Champion, the research is very hopeful.

To view more photos of older people in action, visit the Alex Rotas Postcard Collection.

This article orginally appeared on LinkedIn.