Back when Bernie G. was only 78, he suffered a minor stroke. Then his loving wife of many decades died. The double blows caused Bernie's family to put him into a nursing home because he seemingly could no longer care for himself. Bernie became apathetic about life and mostly just languished all day long in bed.
But then a university researcher studying the effects of weight lifting on seniors asked Bernie to take part in an exercise program. At the start, using both arms, Bernie could only lift 18 pounds over his head.
After 12 weeks of working out on the weights, Bernie discovered he could heft 48 pounds. He also started propelling himself in his wheelchair -- thereby removing the need for an attendant -- and doing all his own feeding, dressing and personal-care chores.
Four years later, at 82, Bernie says he is enjoying life and working out with weights -- albeit lightly -- four times a week.
Bernie's case is not an isolated oddity. In the United States alone, researchers at six major medical centers have found that weight lifting and other forms of exercise can literally turn back the clock. One of the oldest iron-pumping subjects on record was a frail 96-year-old woman who regained the mobility, spunk and vigor of an average 58-year-old. Moreover, strength training among seniors has been shown to help slow the loss of bone, strengthen the heart and boost immunity, while increasing flexibility and balance. All that helps prevent body-wracking, bone-splintering falls, which lead to more serious medical woes, along with sky-rocketing health care costs.
"Many physicians have been gun-shy about putting people over 80 on weight lifting programs," says Dr. John Meuleman, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Florida's College of Medicine in Gainesville, Fla. "But as long as the exercise is supervised, starts with light weights and gradually works up, we've found the elderly can be encouraged to work out harder and will do just fine. The human body is designed to be used during all its days."
Scientists and researchers have found that working out can do much more than ease the ravages of time. Studies are showing that exercise is a type of medicine that can help prevent heart disease, type I and II diabetes, arthritis and osteoporosis. High blood pressure and other health ailments are also eased by regular activity.
Exercise helps strengthen the heart muscle and may cause chemical changes in the blood that help protect against heart attacks. Working out helps diabetics because it lowers glucose levels by taking some glucose to use for energy. Diabetics who regularly break a sweat say exercise even reduces the need for insulin. Being active helps arthritics because it brings more blood to muscles, improves joint flexibility, strengthens muscles, tendons and ligaments.
Nonetheless, only about 20 percent of people in industrialized nations get regular exercise. And, according to one researcher, that widespread sloth is actually a type of 21st-century plague.
"Records in industrialized nations show heart disease is up 37 percent since 1950; type II diabetes is up 600 percent since 1958, and more people than ever complain of backaches, osteoporosis and high blood pressure," says biologist Frank Booth at the University of Missouri-Columbia in Kansas City, Mo. "Calculations show sedentary living and inactivity are linked to at least 17 chronic diseases and are responsible for about 250,000 deaths yearly in the United States alone."
Only smoking, which claims about 400,000 lives yearly in the United States, causes more preventable deaths.
The cost of treating inactivity-related illnesses, Booth reckons, approaches $1 trillion yearly. What is not so clearly known, however, is why physical inactivity leads to disease in the first place. So Booth has created an advocacy group, Scientists Against Inactivity-Related Diseases, to better understand why the human body is so sickened by a couch potato lifestyle.
Additionally, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher last year released the first report on physical activity and cited health benefits that are "momentous," he wrote. "Exercise prevents premature death, unnecessary illness and disability; controls health care costs and maintains a high quality of life into old age."
The surgeon general says many health conditions can be better managed by any activity that requires 150 calories a day or 1,000 calories a week. That's how much energy a 150-pound person burns in 30 to 45 minutes of house cleaning or car washing, in 15 minutes of snow shoveling or 20 minutes of rapid walking.
Whatever the cause, being as active as possible seems to supply some anti-aging effects.
Prof. Robert A. Wiswell, associate professor of biokinesiology at the University of Southern California, has studied 250 older athletes for the last 14 years. His subjects, all over 40, hold mundane jobs but have been dedicated to a particular sport. His athletes include a 66-year-old "ultra" distance runner (50 to 100 mile races at a time,) and a 91-year-old swimmer. Fifteen of his subjects are over 70 while another five are over 80.
The athletes are poked, prodded, measured and monitored in just about every way known to medical science. Physical testing includes treadmill tests, bone density scans, muscle biopsies, blood pressure checks, analysis of cholesterol levels, blood, body fat, aerobic capacity, and even knee strength. "The numbers on all their tests are what you would expect to see in college age people," says Professor Wiswell. "The men have an average body fat percentage of 15 percent; the women have about 21 percent."
Many experts have traditionally assumed physical fitness and agility in the human body automatically takes a steep nose dive after about age 35. But all the data in Wiswell's lab reveal a surprising stability in athletic performance between the ages of 40 and 65, when a slight decline sets in among men. In women, the decline hits about five years earlier.
"The practical part of knowing the strength possibilities of an elderly person is that losing some strength can make the difference between independent living or placement in a care facility," says Professor Wiswell.
Yet another form of exercise -- tai chi, the graceful, nonstressful workout from China -- reduced the rate of falling by half in a group of seniors who took tai chi three times a week for 15 weeks.
Another study at the University of Florida found that buffing your biceps also protects your body against damage from a substance known as free radicals. Those are naturally occurring substances that are a byproduct of ordinary metabolism but damage cells and tissues. A health world buzzword, free radicals have been linked to cardiac woes as well as age-related disorders like stroke and even cancer. Thus, many health conscious people gobble antioxidants, like vitamins C and E. But the University of Florida study subjects had lower levels of free radicals in their blood after lifting light weights three times weekly for half a year. More recent findings on the effects of exercise include benefits that overcome male and female problems, damaged hearts and putting off middle-age weight gain.
For instance, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh studied 2,100 women, ages 20 to 69, and found those who worked out more than six hours a week were 27 percent less likely than other women to develop ovarian cancer. The protection was seen in both younger and older subjects. Researchers think that women who engage in regular physical activity may boost natural hormones that have an anti-tumor effect.
If men ever needed a reason to pick up an exercise habit, a study at New England Research Institutes in Watertown, Mass., may have provided it. That study found exercisers are less likely to become impotent. The study revealed that men who burned 200 calories or more a day -- a level met with two miles of daily walking -- have half the risk of erecticle dysfunction as other men.
Even when your health is not perfect, regular movement can help make life better. In a study on 406 heart attack survivors at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Austin, Texas, researchers took an inventory on the subjects' health and amount of physical activity once a year for five years. Findings? While 150 had a second heart attack, those who remained active had a 78 percent lower chance of another attack.
"The wrong age group -- the 30-somethings -- is filling health clubs," he says. "At 57, I personally am not exercising to promote bulging muscles. I exercise to promote health so I won't have my lifestyle restricted at age 93. It is never too late to regain muscle mass which, if left alone, starts a decline at about age 50."