Broward County

Use it or lose it: Exercising your body and mind is key to aging well

Emily Michot

Newlywed Marilyn Richardson Kapper, 76, plays tennis three times a week and goes to the gym three to four times, too, where she benches, lifts weights and does cardio.

She and her husband, Lloyd, 75, often go dancing. You’ll find them doing the lindy hop, rumba, cha-cha and twist. They also enjoy movies and travel. In fact, they just got back from a Baltic cruise with three other couples.

Because they toured the ports by foot instead of sitting on excursion buses, Marilyn was able to keep from adding to the 129 pounds on her 5-foot-2-inch frame, even as she enjoyed the shipboard cuisine.

Like so many others, the Kappers are discovering that being physically active can improve your health and delay the effects of aging, as reported in a recent article in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

“It’s as simple as ‘use it or lose it,’” says Dr. Adam Splaver, a cardiologist and internist with practices in Hollywood and Miami Beach. That means not only using your body, but also your mind.

To keep their brains active, the Kappers read the newspaper and books, do crossword puzzles, go to movies and lunch with friends.

“Today, it’s not just about growing to be 100 years old, but about being functional and independent throughout your lifetime,” says Splaver, who also is the medical director of echocardiography at the Memorial Health Care System.

John E. Lewis, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, agrees that exercise is the best medicine.

It not only helps maintain bone density, muscle mass, as well as ligament and tendon function, but also controls blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol while improving your immune system, brain function and cardiac health.

For best results, Lewis recommends that his patients do cardiovascular exercise four to five times a week. This should be an activity you enjoy that raises your heart rate. Think of walking, swimming, running or riding a stationary bike or using a treadmill so you don’t have to worry about traffic or weather.

He also suggests that two to three days a week you weight-train to help grow bone while improving balance, so you don’t fall and fracture an arm or hip. Strength training also has been found to confer many of the same benefits to the various systems of the body that are associated with aerobic training, Lewis says.

Like cardio and weight-lifting, flexibility training also is an important part of an active lifestyle for seniors. After sitting in an office chair through their middle years, many seniors experience joint problems and lower back pain that can be relieved with exercise.

Just like your body, your brain does better if used regularly. There have been small studies that show people who have a higher level of activity don’t have as much cognitive decline as those who are sedentary, says Po-Heng Tsai, a cognitive and behavioral neurologist at Cleveland Clinic.

As we age, brain cells die off and connections between different parts of the brain may weaken unless they are renewed over and over again. While there is no single activity the doctors recommend to improve brain function, they suggest you find something new to try.

“The brain likes a challenge,” Tsai says. Consider learning to play a new musical instrument or speak a new language; do crossword puzzles or Sudoku; or try to solve problems.

A study of 300 elderly people published in the journal Neurology last year showed that regularly participating in mentally challenging activities slowed the participants’ rates of memory loss, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

Besides exercising the body and brain, it’s important that seniors stay connected with others who have similar goals. “We are social animals who benefit from interacting,” says Tsai. That means not only “friending” people on Facebook, but also in person.

Try joining others to play bridge, have lunch or discuss a book to help maintain your cognitive edge and prevent depression and the memory loss that often results.

Physical exercise also can help stave off depression. In fact a study showed that people who took SSRI antidepressants compared favorably with those who exercised regularly in fighting depression, Splaver says.

Eating a healthful diet also is important to fuel your active body. Lewis opts for a whole-food, plant-based diet high in seeds, fruits, veggies and nuts. Splaver recommends you cut down on carbs by removing one such as rice, pasta or white bread from your diet each month.

But again, no matter what changes you make, it’s best to begin incrementally. “Small changes done over a long period of time are the ones that stick,” Splaver says.

He recommends that his patients make a weekly appointment with themselves to exercise, much as they make an appointment to come to his office for a checkup. After a month, he has them add another day of exercise until they build up their strength and endurance.

And if you miss a day of exercise, eat French fries or fail to fill in the puzzle clues, don’t be too hard on yourself.

“Just because you messed up once doesn’t mean you can’t start over again the next day. Think of these changes as part of a marathon, not a sprint,” Splaver says.