It’s time to take our medicine—Part 3: Walking plus
As we get older our bodies change. At around the age of 40 to 45 years, there’s the beginning of a decrease in muscle mass and strength. That’s when you should start ‘to think about strength or resistance training to combat this muscle loss,’ says Professor Robin Daly.
Of course, the thinking should be matched with doing.
Daly holds the position of Chair in Exercise and Ageing within the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University, Melbourne. He sees exercise as medicine and argues that medical professionals should ‘prescribe’ exercises to prevent and manage common chronic diseases.
But there are some things we can do ourselves to get or remain fit and healthy.
Resistance or strength training becomes more important when we reach 50 or 60. For example, women who go through menopause experience a rapid loss in bone density. Targeted resistance training combined with weight-bearing exercise can help counter this bone loss as well as improve muscle mass and strength.
‘Bones like to be stressed,’ Daly adds, ‘and that’s why we talk about targeted prescription because what you prescribe for your bones is different to what you prescribe for your heart.’
For heart health he would prescribe aerobic-type activities like walking, jogging, or cycling, progressing to brisk walking and hill cycling. ‘This is fantastic for heart health, but unfortunately, these types of activities have little or no effect on your bone health.’
Walking plus for the 50 pluses
That also means that while walking is a popular and excellent form of exercise, ‘it doesn’t stress your muscles enough to prevent the typical age-related decline. We like to emphasise walking plus. Walking plus something else if you want to target bone health and muscle function.’
Walking can be an important part of the exercise program and, for those who wear activity trackers, 10,000 steps a day is a good goal because of the ‘cardiovascular health outcomes’ it gives. However, even if you don’t reach 10,000 daily steps don’t despair. Research has shown that each 1000-daily-step-count increase equated to a 6% reduction in your risk of death.
With walking plus you should consider adding resistance training—perhaps in a gym-based facility. The advantage of a gym is that they have the equipment and programs, and the trainers to show you how to do it.
‘Using free weights and weight machines is safe and really effective,’ says Daly, ‘and the benefits of resistance training is that you get rapid results. Within six to eight weeks you’ll feel stronger and you’ll feel much better about yourself from the mental health benefits as well. That’s one of the perks of resistance training.’
Aerobic training—the type of exercise that works your heart and has you breathing hard (huffing and puffing)—is great for improving your fitness and endurance.
If you’ve lived a sedentary life, are overweight, or struggle with something like osteoarthritis, you can do exercises seated on a machine.
And, of course, you can exercise at home. Daly says, ‘You can perform things like wall squats, lunges, push-ups and triceps dips. You can buy those large rubber bands and use them for strengthening exercises.’
But, as you would expect, he urges, ‘You need someone to prescribe it for you and show you how to perform each exercise correctly and safely.’
Is it worth the effort?
Consider this: ‘We know that fitness is one of the strongest predictors of mortality or death. Basically, if you have really poor fitness you could lose 5 to 10 years of life.’
Fitness seems like a reasonable price to pay for an extra 5 to 10 years. And, if you want to do the maths, spending 5 hours a week exercising for 10 years takes just over 100 days (108.3 days if you really want to know) out of those 10 years.
That seems like a good trade-off—100 days over 10 years to gain an extra 5 to 10 years of active life. That could be a motivational factor.
‘I know I said anything is better than nothing,’ says Daly, ‘and that’s true, but over time anyone can progress from moderate to high-intensity resistance training and will really see enormous benefits.’
It’s certainly worth the effort. ‘We’ve done so many studies of people with various chronic diseases, such as those with poorly controlled diabetes and even the very old (88-90-year-olds), and shown that resistance training can change their physical health and mental health and well-being.
‘They say to us, “Why didn’t I do this earlier?”’
This is the third of four posts from an extended interview with Robin Daly from the Faculty of Health at Deakin University.
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