October 1, 2008 — At a recent event co-sponsored by the University of Virginia's Institute on Aging and the ACAC Fitness and Wellness Center, nearly 300 community members learned that it's never too late to start exercising
"Another Good Reason to Exercise: Understanding and Preventing Age-Related Muscle Loss & Weight Gain" took place at the ACAC's Albemarle Square location and featured a lecture by Dr. William Evans from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences as well as yoga and tai chi demonstrations.
In his introductory remarks, Art Weltman, director of the U.Va.'s Exercise Physiology Laboratory, pointed out that despite the fact that people are living longer than ever, these extra years are not always graced with good health.
"We've increased the lifespan a lot over the last 100 years," he said. "But now we are really talking about increasing the health span, rather than the lifespan. That is, how do you age in a healthy manner rather than just adding years to your life?"
Evans provided answers to this question through a presentation that interspersed humor with statistics from his pioneering research, which has demonstrated that even people in their 90s can reap a variety of health and wellness benefits from exercise.
"I think that we're at the beginning of a revolution in what we know and how we think about aging," Evans said. He noted that for the first time in human history, researchers understand the true biological effects of aging.
As an exercise physiologist, Evans measures how factors such as muscle mass and aerobic capacity change with exercise. Evans' research with sedentary older adults uncovered a surprisingly large decline in their aerobic capacity — the maximum amount of oxygen taken in during exercise. Their aerobic capacity was about the same as that of a younger person who has just suffered a heart attack. Such a decline can impede many daily activities, like climbing stairs.
Loss of muscle mass presents an even greater challenge to daily living for older adults. More than 20 percent of people over age 65 suffer from sarcopenia — an age-related loss of muscle that can lead to frailty and falls. Studies have shown that in adults 75 to 85 years of age, 65 percent of women and 35 percent of men are unable to lift 10 pounds.
"This translates directly into a loss of independence," Evans said. "And so what we are seeing is the growing loss of independence not due to cognitive impairment, not due to chronic disease, but simply due to growing muscle weakness."
Enter Evans and his promising research. One of his first studies in this area involved high-intensity strength training with a group of older men. Participants significantly improved both their strength and muscle size. In fact, after the 12-week program many of them were stronger than they had ever been before.
"This first study actually led to a tremendous increase in interest in strength training, because for the first time we showed that older people could be highly responsive to an exercise intervention," Evans said.
Subsequent studies, including one in a nursing home with residents in their 80s and 90s, have demonstrated that even more moderate strength training can improve bone density, strength and balance, and leads to increased overall physical activity as well as an improved sense of well-being.
Evans' findings have obvious practical implications such as lengthening the amount of time that older adults can live independently, but in addition, when used as a preventative therapy, exercise has the potential to drastically reduce healthcare expenditures.