Aug 6, 2019
Seniors turn back the clock by getting off the couch
Paula Call decided it was time to get fit after a health scare in 2015 landed her in the hospital, where she was treated for double pneumonia and sepsis.
After that experience, the 70-year-old grandmother quit smoking cold turkey and started participating in many of the exercise classes held in the club house of her over-55 senior-living community in Middleborough, Mass.
She does yoga and tai chi, but her favorite workout is a 60-minute core class on Tuesday nights. And she’s feeling better than ever:
“I’m not getting as many colds, and I don’t have to use my inhaler as much for my asthma,” said Call, a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Medicare supplemental plan member. Plus, she’s met lots of new people and noticed her mood is sunnier.
“Exercise boosts you up,” she said.
Never too late
Most people know that exercising in youth or middle age can help us maintain a healthy weight, stave off chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, and lift our mood.
But can starting an exercise regimen later in life, as Call did, really make a difference in your health?
It turns out it can, experts say.
“It’s never too late to adopt a healthy lifestyle,” said Dr. Dana King, a professor of family medicine at West Virginia University, whose studies of older adults and physical activity have focused on baby boomers.
His research has shown that people who begin healthy behaviors later in life can cut their risk of heart attacks and other dangerous health conditions by 40 percent in just four years.
“Studies have shown it’s never too late to start," agreed Dr. Frank Hu, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who earlier this year released a landmark study on longevity.
"People in their 70s can still see significant benefits and decrease their risk of chronic disease and mortality.”
“The move to get up from the couch and go outside is the most important one,” said Dr. Wojtek Chodzko‑Zajko, professor and dean of the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a leading researcher on aging. “The biggest bang for the buck is moving from sedentary to being active.”
Baby boom challenges
All of this is important news for baby boomers. It turns out that the generation that created the fitness craze and gave us Jane Fonda, Jazzercise and the Thighmaster is unfortunately not The Fittest Generation.
Research by King and his colleagues has shown that boomers exercise less and have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and elevated blood pressure and cholesterol than their parents' generation, thanks to a lifetime of desk jobs, long suburban-sprawl commutes to and from work, and ever more screen time.
King sees evidence of this trend in his practice every day. He said that more and more of his patients are considering hip and knee replacements—not because they’ve overused these joints but because they’re overweight.
“Baby boomers are in the real teeth of aging and chronic disease years,” he said. “Changing exercise and other habits would really be beneficial.”
Adding a decade of life
Seniors can follow a simple road map to add more than a decade of longevity, says Hu:
- Don’t smoke.
- Maintain a healthy weight. If you are not in the obese range, try not to gain weight or increase your waist size. If you are in the obese range, try to lose some weight.
- Get 30 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity at least five days a week. A combination of aerobic exercise such as walking or running and resistance training like lifting weight is most beneficial.
- Drink in moderation—up to one 5-ounce glass of wine per day for women and up to two for men.
- Eat a diet with higher amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes; moderate amounts of fish, poultry and dairy; and lower amounts of red and processed meats, refined grains and sugar.
The more of these habits seniors adopt, Hu says, the bigger the benefit and the greater their longevity. Women who do all five can increase their life expectancy by 14 years; men can live 12 years longer.
“It’s quite impressive that people can prolong life by more than a decade through lifestyle changes instead of drugs,” Hu said.
Even more striking is that these changes are relatively simple: “We’re not talking about running marathons or adopting an extreme diet,” he said.
Motivation to keep moving
“We know how important exercise is for seniors’ health, and we want to give them every opportunity we can to help them keep moving,” said Dr. Katherine Dallow, vice president and medical director of clinical programs and strategy at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Last fall, the insurer began providing free fitness classes at Councils on Aging and Senior Centers in Central Massachusetts, and the program has been expanding to more facilities across the state. The classes are available to all seniors, regardless of whether they are insured through Blue Cross.
“Exercise has been shown to have additional benefits to seniors in the areas of balance and fall prevention, preventing bone loss and improved mental health,” said Dallow.
“Many seniors are at a higher risk of depression, especially those with other chronic medical conditions, and exercise has been proven to increase endorphins, which improve people’s mood," she noted. "And if done in a social setting, exercise can help improve seniors’ social and mental health.”
The insurer also is expanding a fitness reimbursement benefit for all members, including Medicare members, to include membership and class fees for full-service health clubs as well as fitness studios that offer instructor-led group classes, such as yoga, Pilates, kickboxing and indoor cycling.
Helen Botelho, Paula Call’s friend at the over-55 community in Middleborough and also a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Medicare supplemental plan member, has seen the benefits of staying active firsthand.
She does a “top-to-toe” workout class with weights during the week and a country line dancing class on Saturday mornings. She believes her fitness level helped her recover faster after she had surgery in July.
“I was shocked at how quickly I bounced back,” she said.
Botelho plans to keep moving as much as she can for as long as she can: “I feel blessed that every day I can get up, go down to the club house and do something active.”