Better bones, stronger muscles and a happier heart – the benefits of exercise into old age are significant
Aging. It’s something many Australians dread.
Things that used to be easy may not be easy anymore, appearances change and the body works differently, but it’s not all bad.
The aging process cannot be stopped, but physical activity can provide a host of benefits as people age.
According to Pazit Levinger, a senior researcher at the National Research Institute on Aging, overall well-being and health are better for those who exercise well into old age.
“Physical activity is a way to maintain efficient systems in the body that help you overcome disease, function better, and live a good quality of life,” she said.
“Running has kept me healthy”
While not all older Australians can expect instant health improvements from exercise, Abdon Ulloa, 84, swears by his regular running routine.
Abdon started the hobby in his mid-40s. He has now done 75 marathons (the last was at 77) and he estimates his half-marathons now number in the thousands.
He goes to the parkrun every week. He’s been showing up on Saturday mornings for three years and has had 184 runs.
All this exercise, he believes, has paid off.
“Keeping running, keeping moving has helped me a lot to stay healthy,” he said.
“I don’t take any medication and I go to the doctor once a year. I have no problems.”
Abdon is in a league of his own at his local parkrun at Menai in Sydney, where he is the only runner over 80.
About an hour south, 82-year-old Ron Perry circles the North Wollongong track.
“A lot of us are still hanging around at the back of the pitch,” he said.
Like Abdon, Ron started running in his 40s and believes it kept him healthy.
“I started running around the block and then down the beach and took it from there,” he said.
In the nine years since he started parkrun, he has completed 215 runs.
‘Use it or lose it’
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Australian Department of Health and Aged Care recommend that people aged 65 and over get around 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. But data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows that half of this cohort is not so active.
“It’s one of those things, we know it works [exercise]we just need to encourage people to do it more,” Professor Levinger said.
She also explained that ideally exercise in old age should target the heart and lungs, with some strength and resistance training as well.
There should also be a focus on balance exercises.
“The heart has less ability to function efficiently as it did when we were younger,” Professor Levinger said.
“And the same with the respiratory system. We can often feel a bit short of breath as we get older.”
Then there is the issue of weakening muscles.
“If we don’t use them and preserve the strength we have, we lose muscle mass and strength and that will have a direct impact on how we function,” Professor Levinger said.
“When you exercise, you can make these systems work better.”
When it comes to running specifically, Professor Levinger said the benefits were significant, especially for the cardiorespiratory system and bones.
“Your blood pressure is in the healthy/normal range, your resting heart rate is reduced and your heart is working more efficiently,” Professor Levinger said.
“Those who, for example, have been running for a long time, and they continue to run, it’s great for the bones, great for the muscles.
“We often use the phrase ‘use it or lose it’, which is actually correct.”
Someone using it is Colin Thorne, 98, who in New Zealand has become the oldest person to join the 100 parkrun club.
“I won’t give up until I have to,” he said.
It’s never too late
Bill Lamont is Australia’s oldest active parkrunner. He signed up a few months ago and broke his age group record at the Jells parkrun, on his first walk on the track.
“In June, on my 93rd birthday, I decided to give it a try and I’m so glad I did, I’m thoroughly enjoying it,” Bill said.
Bill has always been active, and even now he does exercise classes, orienteering walks and plays table tennis.
“All of this activity, I’m sure, is what keeps me as healthy as I am. I don’t have any medical issues at this age,” Bill said.
Professor Levinger says the key is to do what you can handle and do what you love.
“Do everything you can and grow. You don’t have to be fit, you can exercise and start at any age.”
Just like Lenore Rutley, who always took her morning walk, but started running at 72.
“I wanted to do something a little different,” she said.
Since that decision was made, Lenore has amassed 332 parkruns.
“I just go down hills now. Every once in a while I have a push and do a little run and then walk a little,” she said.
Professor Levinger said the main thing is that people aim to do something they love.
“You want to do things that you feel comfortable doing and find fun because then you’re likely to stick with them,” she said.
And as Lenore says – “what else would you do on a Saturday morning?”
ABC Sport partners with parkrun promote the benefits of physical activity and community involvement.