The Family Health Guide

Physical activity benefits all ages

The frail health often associated with aging is in large part due to physical inactivity, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It also advises that it's never too late to benefit from becoming physically active.

The report cites that even moderate levels of activity — such as washing a car or raking leaves — can produce considerable benefits that can be even more noticeable in older adults. Regular exercise improves cholesterol levels, reduces blood pressure, cuts body fat, and lowers blood sugar. Physical activity also improves bone and muscle strength. All in all, people who exercise live longer — and they also live better.

Current guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day. However, few older Americans reach this level. Lack of physical activity and poor diets are the major causes of obesity, an epidemic that is affecting people of all ages.

In the '70s and '80s, doctors were telling Americans to run; now, they are asking people to walk. Walking can be a moderately intense aerobic activity. But even at a more relaxed pace, walking has huge benefits. The distance actually seems more important than the pace — and it doesn't take heroic distances to get real benefit. In 1993, the Harvard Alumni study found that men who walked just 1.3 miles a day had a 22% lower death rate than those who walked less than 0.3 mile a day.

Strong muscles also improve your health. So set aside 15 minutes two or three times a week for resistance or strength training as well as 10–15 minutes at least three times a week for stretching exercises.

The HHS report provides strategies that individuals, doctors, and even communities can follow to promote physical activity. Individuals are encouraged to take part in activities that they enjoy and to make them a daily part of life. Doctors should help patients start and continue these regimens and overcome any difficulties they encounter. Communities can establish programs tailored to seniors' physical activity needs and improve walking or bike trails.

The complete report is available at www.ahrq.gov/ppip/activity.htm

August 2002 Update