Many health impacts of aging are due to inactivity—not getting old

June 2, 2015 by Travis Saunders, Phd, Msc, Cep, Public Library of Science
Stop killing grandma with kindness

This past winter I taught a course titled "Physical Activity and Aging." It was a fun course, and really drove home an issue that I've known for a while, but hadn't previously given a lot of thought: the impact of aging is identical to the detraining that happens in response to reduced physical activity and/or increased sedentary behaviour.

Aging is associated with reduced fitness, weaker bones, reduced insulin sensitivity, reduced muscle strength, and reduced balance. Lack of is also associated with all of those things. This isn't a coincidence – many (probably most) of the health impacts of aging are not really due to aging at all.

You see, there are 2 types of aging. Eugeric aging, which you can think of as "true" aging. The stuff you simply cannot avoid as you get older (e.g. hearing loss, or reduced eyesight).

But there is also "pathogeric" aging, which refers to pathological aging (e.g. aging that's unecessary/unhealthy). Almost all the really scary things that we attribute to aging (weak bones, bones, heart, lungs, etc) falls into this category, and are much more likely to be caused by too little exercise/too much sitting, rather than aging itself.

I bring this up because I'm concerned that we are currently killing our elders with kindness. We don't let them carry their dishes to the sink ("Mom, sit down! I can get that!"). We won't let them do chores. We worry if they have to go up and down stairs on a daily basis. We get angry if they go for a walk without a chaperone. We force them to sit to conserve their energy. All of this flies in the face of evidence, and common sense. Picture the healthiest older adult that you know – do they spend their day sitting down, or do they spend their days walking, skiing, or dancing? It's not a coincidence.

If I were to take a healthy 20 year-old, force them to sit all day, and refused to let them do any physical labour out of fear they might hurt themselves, I would cause them to "age" extremely rapidly. We call it detraining, and we've known about it for decades. Put a healthy young person in a bed for less than a week and their metabolic health goes to hell – blood pressure increases, as does the amount of fat in the blood, while plummets by over 65% (details here). And yet that's the life that we often push upon the elderly out of fear that they might hurt/tire themselves out of they engage in too much physical activity (fun fact – exercise helps you sleep better, which is a good thing at all ages!).

What's worse, there is often a vicious cycle – a person does less activity as they , which causes reduced fitness. That reduced fitness makes it harder to be active, so their activity levels drop more. Which means fitness drops more. And then starts to slip. Which means even less activity, further reductions in fitness, and difficulties doing activities of daily living, or even living independently. You get my point. The good news? Even modest amounts of exercise result in increased functional and aerobic fitness, as well as improved metabolic health (details here).

We need to promote more, not less physical activity for our elders. We should cheer them on when they decide to do physical chores, and encourage them to do more. The next time to consider telling your grandmother to sit down, think about whether that's really in her best interest.

Explore further: Tips to enjoy a lifestyle that can prevent premature aging

Related Stories

Tips to enjoy a lifestyle that can prevent premature aging

January 27, 2015
New Year's has become synonymous with a desire to change your lifestyle – in fact, 4 in 10 individuals have been said to made resolutions to lose weight. But what about individuals who are facing physical limitations to ...

Older sedentary adults reduced injury to heart through moderate physical activity

November 19, 2013
Moderate physical activity in sedentary older adults reduced the progression of injury to the heart, according to research presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2013.

Better midlife fitness may slow brain aging

March 4, 2015
People with poor physical fitness in their 40s may have lower brain volumes by the time they hit 60, an indicator of accelerated brain aging, according to new research presented at the American Heart Association EPI/Lifestyle ...

Study finds cardiorespiratory fitness contributes to successful brain aging

April 27, 2015
Cardiorespiratory fitness may positively impact the structure of white matter in the brains of older adults. These results suggest that exercise could be prescribed to lessen age-related declines in brain structure.

Older adults with limited mobility may lessen heart problems with activity

February 18, 2015
Older adults with limited mobility may lower their risk of heart attack and coronary death for every minute of physical activity, according to research in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Study shows increased cardiorespiratory fitness may delay onset of high cholesterol

May 11, 2015
Men who have higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness may delay by up to 15 years increases in blood cholesterol levels that commonly occur with aging, according to new research published today in the Journal of the American ...

Recommended for you

China's doctor shortage prompts rush for AI health care

September 20, 2018
Qu Jianguo, 64, had a futuristic medical visit in Shanghai as he put his wrist through an automated pulse-taking machine and received the result within two minutes on a mobile phone—without a doctor present.

Crunched for time? High-intensity exercise = same cell benefits in fewer minutes

September 20, 2018
A few minutes of high-intensity interval or sprinting exercise may be as effective as much longer exercise sessions in spurring beneficial improvements in mitochondrial function, according to new research. The small study ...

Time to ban the sale of energy drinks to children, says senior doctor

September 19, 2018
It's time to bring in laws to ban the sale of caffeinated energy drinks to children and young people in England to tackle the twin epidemics of obesity and mental health problems, argues Professor Russell Viner, President ...

For-profit hospitals correlated with higher readmission rates

September 19, 2018
Patients who receive care in a for-profit hospital are more likely to be readmitted than those who receive care in nonprofit or public hospitals, according to a new study published by University of Illinois at Chicago researchers.

Sugar content of most supermarket yogurts well above recommended threshold

September 18, 2018
A comprehensive survey of ingredients in yogurts highlights high sugar levels in many—particularly organic yogurts and those marketed towards children.

Research confronts 'yucky' attitudes about genetically engineered foods

September 18, 2018
Is a non-browning apple less "natural" than non-fat milk? In one case, people have injected something into apple DNA to prevent it from turning brown after it's cut. In the other, people used technology to remove something ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dedereu
not rated yet Jun 05, 2015
Quite true and real for me old and I continue running strong in stairs and cycling in slopes !!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.