Seniors and exercise: What the experts say

As the graying of America continues with people living longer lives, things like injuries, disease, hospital visits and chronic pain and stiffness are traveling right along with them.

A federal government study released in 2014 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed the average life expectancy for women was 81, with men at 76. As a result, older adults are being encouraged to remain active both through physical fitness and as part of their daily life.

“Between the ages of 35 and 70 an inactive person will lose close to 50 percent of their strength,” said Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging based in Vancouver, British Columbia. “If you lead an inactive lifestyle, that’s where you’ll end up. Physical activity and exercise is crucial for staving off disease and other ailments, but it’s also crucial for being able to function on a daily basis and do the things you want to do.”

Milner said as older people become more active, the typical stereotypes involved with old age are disappearing.

“The reality is in many instances, you can do things and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do them,” said Milner, who cited British citizen Fauja Singh as an example.

In 2011, Singh was 100 when he ran the Toronto Marathon. He became the oldest person in the world to not only run, but finish a marathon (26 miles, 385 yards).

It was his eighth marathon.

“He started running in his 80s, not in his 20s or even 40s,” Milner said. “He is simply an example of what is possible.”

Older Americans are a lot more active these days, but there’s also a lot more of them out there. One government study indicated that by 2030, the 65-older population in American will be 70 million and that those 85-older will be in the fastest growing segment.

“Our body was meant to move, but like a car, if you leave it sitting there for a year, it will get rusty,” Milner said.

“In general, older adults are staying more active as a group,” said Dr. Jeffrey Smithers of the Memorial Medical Group of Orthopedics/Sports Medicine in Belleville. “That’s a good thing as long as they’re adhering to some general principals that can help them avoid injury.”

Smithers said one thing many older Americans tend to avoid when returning or continuing an exercise program is strength training. He believes that’s a mistake.

“In addition to the obvious cardiovascular benefits when doing strength training, it helps them not only stay more active but to maintain and improve strength,” Smithers said. “As adults age, they lose muscle mass. Doing strength training as part of an active regimen can help counteract that loss of muscle mass.”

Steve Horner is a Belleville orthopedic surgeon who also noticed the trend of active older folks.

“There’s a lot more people doing things longer into their life,” Horner said. “In general that’s a good thing. It’s been shown that it’s very good for your overall health and keeping your weight down.”

However, a government survey showed only 22 percent of Americans age 65-older participating in regular physical activity.

“I would say that I’ve seen more injuries and some are from older patients that have been active for a while and get an injury,” Smithers said. “I’ve seen patients trying to be more active, but they ramp up their activity too quickly and end up with injuries like stress fracture or muscle strains that set them back.

“With the fact that people are living longer, the options for staying active are greater and the benefits are better understood across the populations.”

Horner, 53, practices what he preaches. He is extremely active and has been running marathons for years.

“I’ve done nine marathons including Boston, so I’m pretty experienced with running,” he said. “Now I’ve taken up biking. It’s the competitive nature of it, people in the 55-60 year old age groups are very competitive. Some of them are fast and they’ve been fast for a long time.”

Milner estimates older adults need 150 minutes of exercise per week, even if done in only 10-minute increments, to get the full cardiovascular benefit.

“If you can’t do 150 minutes, start where you are and build your way up to it,” he said. “You need to do physical activity to keep your body well-oiled. Yes, you may feel aches and pains when you’re doing physical activity and exercise, but you will feel much better because of doing that as opposed to not doing it.

“It’s absolutely crucial to living life.”

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at or 618-239-2454. Follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders.