It's no secret that whatever our age happens to be, physical exercise is essential. But the sad fact is that inactivity seems to invariably increase with the passing years. By the time we are in our 30s, we can lose 3 to 5 percent of our muscle mass with each decade. By age 75, about 1 in every 3 men and 1 in every 2 women engage in no physical activity whatsoever. The brutal truth is that we all need to exercise — consistently, if not intensely — in order to rebuild the muscle tissue that time takes away. And since muscle affects balance, bone density and overall strength, less muscle mass can directly compromise our mobility and ability to live independently.
Exercise can positively affect our brain as well. People who walk briskly three or more times a week have a 35 percent lower risk of dementia than their sedentary peers. A study by Dr. Ingmar Skoog, a professor of psychiatry and director of the AgeCap Centre for Ageing and Health at the University of Gothenburg was designed to evaluate the cardiovascular fitness of 191 women ages 38 to 60 years old. He and his researchers found that being physically fit at mid-life definitely lowers a woman's risk of dementia.
But regardless of your gender or age, there are plenty of reasons to make exercise a regular part of your healthy lifestyle. Here are just a few of them:
—It can increase the number and health of our bodies' mitochondria, which helps reverse aging at the cellular level — especially if the exercise is intense.
—It improves the microbiome, which ultimately fights inflammation, lowers body weight and strengthens the immune system.
—It can decrease the time it takes for an older person's wound to heal by as much as 25 percent. A fit body can fight off infections better and recover from injury or illness faster.
—It may, according to the National Institute of Aging, delay or prevent a variety of illnesses including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and stroke.
—It helps increase balance, functional reach and stability, which reduce the risk of falls. Falls happen to be the No. 1 injury (to hips and other bones) among seniors.
—It improves quality of life by relieving depression, elevating mood, improving memory and fighting cognitive decline.
—It helps lubricate arthritic joints and lower pain and stiffness.
—It particularly benefits those who exercise consistently, even if they can't do intense workouts.
While researching the benefits of exercise for baby boomers recently, I came across a rather surprising Australian study on lab rats. It made a very powerful argument about the possible benefits for older adults of exercise that took place back when they were youngsters . Essentially, the study (which was reported in The Journal of Physiology) found that exercising while youthful can increase the number of cells in rat hearts, and that these cells remain active in mature hearts. Subjects that didn't exercise until adulthood, however, developed larger cardiac muscle cells, not more of them. And since a heart attack immediately kills tens of millions of cells, this is one area in which quantity can be even more important than quality.
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.