Updated: Apr 26, 2021
This is the second of four posts covering the four pillars of healthspan and longevity:
We often misinterpret movement to mean exercise. But the two are not the same.
When people think of exercise, the image that jumps to mind is a gym membership or exercise class. While that may work for some (and let’s face it, not too many of us are going to the gym right now), movement means so much more.
Movement is about our overall activity level. The sad fact is that many of us spend a lot of our time in office-type settings, which is terrible for our overall health. As a headline in Forbes once put it: “Americans Sit More Than Anytime In History And It's Literally Killing Us.”
Less than 20% of us do physically demanding work. In the 1960s, that number was closer to 50%. This means up to 15 hours a day not moving. One Annals of Internal Medicine study found the same thing as the Forbes piece: those who are more sedentary are at more risk of death.
Integrative Health and Fitness
One key to living longer and healthier is to incorporate frequent movement into your daily schedule.
There are direct health benefits from certain types of movement which lowers your risk of chronic disease and improves your healthspan. Especially as we age, we need to focus on three specific areas of movement:
Maintaining strength and muscle mass
Flexibility and balance
Let’s take these one at a time.
Maintaining strength and muscle mass
It is a sad fact that, as we age, we lose muscle mass. The medical term for this is sarcopenia. Your muscle mass tends to peak in your 30s and up to 25% of it can be lost by your 60s. That is true if you do nothing to counteract this trend. And remember, sitting behind a desk only increases the risk.
Your muscle mass is important for two reasons:
Muscle mass supports your ability to be mobile and avoid the risk of falls (a common debilitating cause of decreasing healthspan)
Muscles are critical in regulating your glucose and maintaining insulin sensitivity. The more muscle mass you have the longer and more effectively you can balance your glucose level with less natural insulin.
So how do you maintain muscle mass? There are several ways and all involve using your “core muscles.” These are the muscles connected to your trunk and your hips. Examples of core muscle movements include:
Brisk walking for 30 minutes
Notice you don’t need any equipment for any of these, and you certainly don’t need a gym membership. Of course, you can use various forms of weights, resistance bands, and bars—but you don’t need them.
Aerobic capacity is the ability to maximize the functions of your lungs and heart while you move. It is measured by the highest amount of oxygen consumed during maximal exercise in activities that use the large muscle groups in the legs or arms and legs combined.
Studies show that building aerobic capacity directly correlates with longevity. This is especially true for those over 60. Aerobic capacity is important to reduce or prevent the development of chronic diseases including cancer and dementia.
Some common activities to do this include interval training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). For example:
Brisk walking or hiking
Playing sports like basketball, soccer, hockey or tennis
Rowing, canoeing, or kayaking
Certain types of yoga
Flexibility and Balance
The last component of building movement into your life is flexibility and balance. These are often separated as part of a structured routine. I group them together as both are important for Injury prevention and lowering the risk of falls.
Falling is a common cause of life impairment. Having worked in emergency departments for 25 years, I witnessed the immediate effects and aftermath of falls, especially in aging patients. I have seen thousands of patients who lost their mobility due to a fall resulting from a hip fracture or head injury.
The statistics are astounding: 50% of people suffering from a hip fracture die within six months and a significant number never regain full mobility.
Additionally, as we age we need to pay more attention to simple stretching. For the last 30 years, I have spent 2-3 minutes per morning stretching after my morning shower. My wife often laughed at me, especially early in our relationship! But whether you stretch after a shower or some other time, what’s important is building it into your routine.
Maintaining flexibility is one reason in my mid-50s I continue to have a very active life and have avoided (for the most part) the most common malady of our modern life–serious back pain.
Movements that help with flexibility and balance include:
There are a lot of options. Some are “twofers,” in that you get two benefits for one activity. For example, brisk walking, yoga, and swimming all help to build both aerobic capacity and flexibility.
Integrative Health & Movement: Where to Start
In starting a healthy habit, the first step is to tie it to an activity you do every day. I shower every day (well, almost). Does it take a few minutes for your water to heat up? Then hold a plank for 15 seconds or do ten pushups.
Start slow and make progress every day. Do you brew coffee or tea in the morning? Take that five minutes and do some bodyweight squats or lunges.
Do you drive or commute to work? Get off the bus a little early or park a few blocks away from your place of work and walk the distance. If you’re not commuting anymore, then do a virtual commute and walk around your neighborhood for ten minutes prior to getting on the computer.
If you work from your home, schedule breaks in your day. Build 15-minute breaks every hour into your calendar. Get up and walk around your house, do a couple of squats, or stretch. No one is stopping you from doing it except you.
Try to get outside for a few minutes during the day regardless of the weather. I know when I was working 8-12-hour shifts in the ER, I would take a few minutes to walk out into the ambulance bay just to get outside and take a few deep breaths. My point is no matter what type of work you do, there are these small windows that open (or can be forced open) to take a few steps towards better health.
One of the healthiest and most accessible ways is to get outside for 30 minutes daily with a partner and walk. This one is a three-fer! It helps your body (walking), mind (strengthening relationships), and soul (being outside).
Start small with one activity for five minutes a day and build from there. It is much more likely to stick when you start small and link it to something you already do. Remember, at Dignity Integrative Health and Wellness, we are always here to help.
Before starting any strenuous movement or exercise program, please check with your health care professional to make sure it is safe for you.