What happens to our bodies as we age? Can we stop or slow the effects of aging? Does menopause signal the beginning of a slippery slope? Well…let’s talk about it.
As we age we may notice decreased endurance, decreased balance, decreased flexibility, decreased strength, or decreased agility. You may begin to experience hot flashes, mood swings, or symptoms such as incontinence, prolapse, arthritis, osteoporosis, and others.
What may cause these changes? It may be decreased activity level as we age, less variety of activities, or natural hormone changes that contribute to some or all of these symptoms. As a physical therapist, my specialty is exercise and I want to highlight the direct link exercise has with our physical, mental, and emotional health. I want to talk about both the type of exercise and the intensity at which you challenge yourself and how this can affect some of the symptoms listed above.
For example, when we are younger we may play organized sports, dance more often, or chase our kids around, all activities that require more side to side movement and more change of direction which helps maintain our agility and balance. We may challenge ourselves more with cardiovascular exercise, working out at a higher intensity or competing in races. This requires our lungs take in maximum amounts of oxygen and our hearts to pump more efficiently to adapt to our work load. The loss of flexibility as we age may be the result of prolonged poor posture or simply that we have stopped moving all of our joints to end range.
In fact, these are all normal changes associated with aging. However, we have the ability to slow these effects by staying active and challenging our bodies with a variety of activities. By staying active, we can slow the decline in performance of our heart, lungs, and neuromuscular system. In other words, the old saying that “if you don’t use it, you lose it” is very true. If you never exercise to the point where you are breathing heavily, you will see a rapid decline in max cardiac output and max O2 uptake. If you never work activities that move your body side to side, front to back, or up and down, you will lose agility. If you don’t work single leg balance or walk on uneven terrain, your body will lose this ability as well. And if you don’t move or stretch all of your joints to end range, you will gradually lose mobility of your joints and flexibility of your muscles.
So what do I recommend? Get out and move! Climb the stairs – don’t avoid them. Take a dance class, work single leg balance every day, begin to increase your intensity level during workouts two times per week to raise your heart rate and breathing rate to an effort level where it would be difficult to hold a conversation. Don’t be afraid to try something new. A variety of activities will challenge your neuromuscular system in new ways, keeping all of your muscles, nerves, and joints active and healthy.
In the next blog, I will go into more detail about the various things we can all do to help slow the effects of osteoporosis, arthritis, prolapse and incontinence.