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The Benefits of Staying Active as You Age

When does exercise benefit us the most?

Many people think that muscle strength starts to decline in middle age, along with things like your balance, coordination and flexibility. However, research from Duke University shows that these fitness-related changes actually begin much earlier than many people expect — often when they’re still in their 50s.

To evaluate age-related changes in people’s fitness abilities, researchers at Duke University’s Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development took 775 participants from their 30s to their 90s and asked them to perform tests designed to measure things like strength, endurance, balance and walking speed.

The men generally performed better than the women at all ages, but the age when physical declines really become apparent was consistent for both genders: the 50s. That is the period when both genders began to experience difficulty repeatedly rising from and sitting in a chair for 30 seconds (an indicator of declines in lower body strength) or standing for up to 60 seconds on one leg (a measure of balance).

In addition, those in their 60s and 70s displayed a noticeable slowing of gait speed (based on distance covered per second of a four-meter walk) and a reduction in their aerobic endurance (based on a six-minute walk test). In comparison, those in their 80s and 90s showed dramatic declines in their balance, gait speed, lower body strength and aerobic endurance.

What’s really happening is these changes begin to occur earlier in life, but they don’t manifest and become problematic until later in life. There’s also a domino effect involved: Declines in muscle strength and bone mass start to occur in the 30s, and losses of lower body strength and balance will eventually impact walking speed.

Banking fitness like retirement savings

It’s a mistake to wait to do something until these declines in physical fitness set in. After all, these fitness factors affect not only your general level of functionality but also your overall health. In a practical sense, things such as your gait speed may determine whether or not you can cross the street safely before the light turns red. But it’s more than that, too. Gait speed is now being called the sixth vital sign, and it’s the strongest predictor of hospitalizations, as well as a person’s risk for developing chronic diseases, disabilities and cognitive decline.

That’s why it is a smart idea to view building and maintaining physical fitness similar to how you might accrue savings for retirement. The earlier you begin to save up, the bigger your returns on your investment, and it’s never too late to start. All of the body’s systems respond to the right dose of physical activity and exercise.

Participating in regular physical activity can modify all of these age-related declines in muscle strength, balance, mobility, agility and endurance. As much as 50 percent of these age-related deficits can be attributed to a sedentary or inactive lifestyle. This means you have the power to profoundly influence how these fitness parameters change as you get older.

The power of a plan

To minimize or delay declines in health and wellness, you’ll want to follow a well-rounded exercise program that highlights endurance, strength, balance, and agility. At any age, it’s important to start with aerobic exercise, whether it’s a brisk walk, a jog, bike ride, a swim, dancing or using a cardio machine like an elliptical trainer. A good gauge of what moderate intensity means is still being able to talk, but not sing, while you’re working out.

Staying aerobically active is especially important, as you get older, because losses in cardiovascular fitness occur more rapidly than losses in muscle strength.

Beyond that aerobic baseline, here’s what to add in by age:

In your 50s

It’s critical to work on building and maintaining muscle strength, especially in your lower body because you lose muscle strength faster in your lower extremities. Whether you choose to use your own body weight (by doing squats, lunges, pushups or triceps dips), weights or resistance bands is up to you. It’s best to target all the major muscle groups including the glute muscles, the quadriceps and hamstrings, and the calf muscles.

Ideally you want to do a whole-body strength-training regimen that also addresses the pectoral muscles (in the chest), the latissimus dorsi (in the back), the deltoid muscles (in the shoulders) and the biceps and triceps (in the upper arms). Start with one set of eight to 15 repetitions and work up to two to three sets, twice a week. Add plank exercises to build and maintain core strength and you will have covered all your bases.

In your 60s and 70s

Try to walk more often and vary your pace so that you’re alternating between bouts of faster walking and a more comfortable pace. You can work on protecting your balance by trying to stand on one foot for up to 60 seconds with your eyes open, sitting in a chair and lifting one foot from the floor with your eyes closed, or continuously going from a seated to a standing position without using your hands. To take extra precautions to protect your balance, you might try a mind-body form of exercise such as yoga, Pilates, or tai chi, which would provide agility, mobility, flexibility and some muscular fitness benefits as well.

In your 80s and beyond

As far as cardiovascular activities go, you should find something you enjoy that provides social engagement and makes you feel energized. This could involve taking a water aerobics class with friends or joining a walking group. Cardiorespiratory exercise is one of the best deterrents to developing cognitive decline. Continue working on your balance by alternately standing on one leg then the other with one hand on a counter to steady yourself and the other by your side. Or try standing with one foot behind the other, with the heel of the front foot against the toes of the back foot (maintain your balance for 10 seconds then switch placement of the feet). If you find yourself really struggling with balance, consider working with a trainer in a supervised setting.

Active aging and the immune system

Consistently exercising over the course of a lifetime is definitely the best medicine when it comes to slowing the aging process and staying healthy. British researchers at the University of Birmingham and King’s College London compared the muscles and immune systems of a group of older adults who had exercised all their lives with a group of similarly aged adults and younger adults who had not exercised regularly. What they found is that those who worked out consistently defied the aging process by enjoying the immunity and muscle mass of a much younger person.

The study suggests that simply getting older doesn’t cause a loss of immune protection. Rather, it’s a lack of exercise that’s to blame.

Even if you’ve been a couch potato since youth, there’s still a major benefit to starting a regular exercise routine later in life. A study by UT Southwestern and Texas Health Resources found that exercise can reverse damage to sedentary, aging hearts and may help prevent risk of future heart failure so long as it’s enough exercise and it’s started in time. To reap the greatest reward, regular workouts should begin by late middle age (before age 65) and the exercise needs to be performed four to five times a week.

The active lifestyle at The Legacy Willow Bend

The Legacy Willow Bend is a Life Care community located in Plano, Texas offering the full continuum of senior living care services. We understand that a holistic, integrated approach to wellness is the most effective way to ensure that our residents stay healthy, active and happy. This means taking full advantage of all the unique, fun and stimulating activities, programs and amenities at the community to engage residents’ minds, bodies and souls.

If you are interested in learning more about the lifestyle and wellness opportunities at The Legacy Willow Bend, you can arrange a tour of our community or find more information by calling (972) 468-6208.

Click here to learn more about the culture of wellness at The Legacy Willow Bend.



  1. Emling, S. (2018, March 09). Regular Exercise Helps Slow Down Aging. Retrieved July 9, 2018, from https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2018/regular-exercise-aging-fd.html
  2. Colino, S. (2018, June 29). Improve Fitness at Every Age and Stage for Health Benefits. Retrieved July 9, 2018, from https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2018/banking-fitness-any-age.html
  3. Senior Exercise and Fitness Tips. (n.d.). Retrieved July 9, 2018, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/exercise-and-fitness-as-you-age.htm