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Inactivity Is a Great Enemy of Fitness and Health as We Get Older

By Patty Levine - South Bend Tribune

If you want to age well, you should follow the marathon road of Johnny Kelley, the holder of the most storied running career in Boston history.

Kelley started exercising young, and he never stopped. In the years between 1928 and 1992, Kelley ran the Boston Marathon 61 times, winning twice. He also ran the New York Marathon 15 times (winning twice) and made three U.S. Olympic teams.

Kelley ran in his last Boston Marathon in 1992 at age 84, and today he still jogs, swims and works out several times a week with a trainer.

There is a simple, essential fact about exercise and your health: Fitness reduces your risk of death. It doesn't get much more "bottom line" than that.

But even though you know you should be exercising, something always seems to keep you from even getting started. No matter what the excuse (including the most truthful reason of them all — you hate to exercise), know that you're not alone.

More than 60 percent of Americans get little or no exercise, despite continual reminders about the many rewards of regular exercise to body and mind.

An even more telling statistic is that one in three Americans over 50 is completely sedentary.

This means that it's time for a wholesale shift in the way we live our lives if we want to age successfully, and it's never too late to start.

There is a middle ground between the perky, white-haired tennis buffs who show not a hint of sagging muscles or weak bones, and the grandmother in her rocking chair.

Unless we take some action to the contrary, as we age, the less physically fit we become. The decline of physical fitness does not suddenly begin at age 65 but begins in middle age and progresses steadily. When aging promotes a gradual physical decline starting in middle age, a downward spiral often ensues.

The experience of feeling weak leads us to become more sedentary, and this inactivity leads to further frailty. The important thing to remember is that you do not have to age in the usual manner.

The weather in Chicago was cold, sunny and a little bit windy this past October when Richard Pappas, president of Lake Michigan College, ran his first marathon at age 51.

"I've always exercised," he says. "I played basketball in high school and college and started running when I was in my 30s."

Pappas works out every day doing stretches, using the Stairmaster and free weights.

"I feel bad if I don't exercise," he reports, "like I'm not cooking on all burners."

Steve Silcox, chairman of the board of trustees of Lake Michigan College, ran with Pappas that day. Silcox, 58, has been running for eight years after 15 years as an avid tennis player. Silcox trained for the Chicago Marathon by following the 16-week marathon training schedule advocated by Runner's World Magazine and says that even when he is not in training he runs five times a week plus weekends.

"Running is like an escape," he says. "I'm outdoors, I can clear my mind, and I can think."

"Exercise," says Dr. Stephen Simons, a physician with South Bend Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine and a marathoner himself, "is the closest thing we've got to the fountain of youth."

A study by Dr. Ralph Paffenbarger of Stanford that followed more than 17,000 Harvard graduates for 25 years found that expending at least 2,000 calories a week in exercise (roughly equivalent to jogging two hours a week) adds a year or more to life. Moderate exercise can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, diabetes, colon cancer and clinical depression.

According to Simons, you don't have to have been an athlete when you were younger. Neither do you have to run for decades like Kelley to be fit as you age. The key, he says, is to keep exercising if you want to maintain strength and prolong life.

A study of members of the 1972 Olympic rowing team showed that even men who were elite athletes in their youth were no better off than "couch potatoes" if they stopped working out.

But how far can an older athlete push the limits, and just how good can you be as you age? You may not be as fit, fast and strong as you were in your youthful heyday (assuming you had one), but, says Simons, you can be a lot fitter, faster and stronger than you might think, even if you resume exercise after years of sloth.

For example, no matter what you do, your aerobic capacity, or VO2 max — the maximum rate at which the heart, lungs and muscles can burn oxygen to make energy — declines with age. Several studies have shown that it falls at a rate of 10 percent per decade after age 25. With regular, aerobic exercise, it declines at half that rate.

Your muscles are another biological wall. Even though muscles can and do get bigger and stronger with use, we are born with all the muscle fibers we are ever going to have. There is a decline in muscle mass because of a decrease in the number of motor nerves that activate muscles. The biggest factor in the decline of athletic performance with age is muscle atrophy. But it pays to stay active to keep muscles strong as you age.

Studies have reported that an active person will hit this biological wall at 95 or even 100, whereas an inactive person may reach this threshold at 60.

The muscles of people who lift weights regularly are bigger and contract with greater force than those of people who don't. Scientists also have found that some types of muscles age faster than others.

Simons says that Type I muscles that are used for speed seem to fatigue more quickly and decline more rapidly with age than Type II muscles that are used for endurance. This might explain why older athletes can't run or swim as fast as young ones but can do quite well in endurance events.

The bottom line, Simons says, is that inactivity, more than age per se, is the great enemy of fitness and health.

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