It's time to shape up

Posted: Sunday, February 16, 2003

You may have noticed all the attention lately directed at increasing the physical activity of our aging population.

If we take just a brief snapshot of the statistics that illustrate the dramatic demographic shift, you might recognize the potential strain that could be put on the health care system if the baby boom generation does not begin to shape up.

Here are just a few of the facts from the "National Blueprint: Increasing Physical Activity Among Adults Age 50 and Older." In the year 2000, around 35 million people, 13 percent of the population, were 65 and older.

The baby boom generation will begin to turn 65 in 2009 and the number of people age 65 and older will reach 93 million with the next 50 years. The youngest of the baby boomers will reach age 65 in 2030.

While we all know healthy and active older Americans, the following statistics show how a large percent of Americans are aging. Eighty-eight of those over 65 have at least one chronic health condition and 21 percent of people over 65 have chronic disabilities. Thirty-five percent to 50 percent of women age 70 to 80 have difficulty with general mobility tasks, like walking a few blocks, climbing a flight of stairs or doing housework.

Is it too late to start increasing physical activity? The Blueprint considers the following, elements of physical activity: cardio respiratory (aerobic), endurance, muscle strength and endurance, balance and stretching. Let's look at just one of the elements, muscle strength.

Up until the mid-1980s scientists generally believed loss of muscle and strength were inevitable as people got older and neither could be restored. Then a study conducted at Tufts Center on Aging with men in their 60s strength training, working out at about 80 percent of their capacity, shattered myths about aging.

Another researcher applied this study to the frail elderly -- men and women in a nursing home ranging in ages 86-96. They started at a safe level and progressed as strength increased. Three times a week for eight weeks they worked out. In just eight weeks, these frail men and women increased their strength by an average of 175 percent. On a test of walking speed and balance, their scores increased an average of 48 percent.

Research conducted by Miriam E. Nelson, Ph.D., showed that postmenopausal women strength training just twice a week gained bone in their hip and spine, became stronger and improved balance.

Balance begins to deteriorate in middle age. Changes in balance often are so subtle they can go undetected. However, as small changes mount up, the loss of balance can begin to affect the quality of life. A consequence can be the constant fear of falling. This fear can lead to inactivity and weakness. To improve balance incorporate strength training, balance exercises or activities such as yoga or tai chi.

Today is the day to start making physical activity a part of our daily lifestyle.

Linda Tannehill is an agent at the Alaska Cooperative Extension Office. She is a home economist and involved in the 4-H/Youth Develop-ment programs. The Kenai Penin-sula District Extension Office is at 43961 Kalifornsky Beach Road, Suite A, Soldotna, AK. The numbers are 262-5824 and (800) 478-5824.

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