Age has no firm rules
The plain biological fact is that muscles don't wear out as we age. Even in the body of a 90-year-old, their strength and flexibility improves within days of increased activity. And when people keep moving, many other good things happen.
Keeping active has comprehensive effects. "It's not that you'll get the way you were at 20," said Stanford Hospital orthopaedist Michael Fredericson, MD, "but every part of your body will benefit your immune system, bone density, cholesterol levels, cardiac parameters."
"Another plus of activity's improvement to bone and cartilage density is that it reduces the likelihood of bone breaks after a minor fall," said Gary Fanton, MD, Chief of the Hospital's Sports Medicine Division. More than 67,000 Californians 65 and older fell and were hospitalized in 2006. In 2007, 27 people in San Mateo County 65 and older died from fall injuries.
Injury doesn't mean stop
Even post-injury treatment philosophy is more driven by the idea of staying active. "On general principal, we do try and get people moving," Fredericson said. "You want to get the body moving as quick as you can. If you have a fracture, we wouldn't recommend that all of a sudden you start putting weight on it. But there's always something you can do."
Fredericson's fellow Stanford orthopaedist, Tim McAdams, MD, did Wegenstein's most recent knee repair and advised him to lay off weight-bearing activity for several weeks, but to keep moving. McAdams recommended to Wegenstein a machine that moved his knee for him. He grabbed his laptop so he could work, too, and kept his knee from stiffening up. Even though Wegenstein had only three weeks to train for that mountain passes event that year, he still completed the grueling course.
As Wegenstein was forced to recognize, sometimes aging means doing things differently. The key to keeping fit with an aging body, Fredericson said, is changing how you exercise. "You need to get smart, not overdo it and come at your body in different directions," he said. "Running is a great exercise, but it loads your body only in one plane of motion. It's important to cross train."
In addition to cycling and skiing, Wegenstein does weight training and plays tennis.
A surefire preventive
Nor are the benefits of activity restricted to anatomic mechanics. "There's good evidence that maintaining activity does have a positive effect on the brain and, in particular, on mood," said Peter Pompei, MD, a Stanford Hospital gerontologist and member of the Improving Doctoring for Elder Americans Task Force of the Society of General Internal Medicine. "People who remain physically and socially active do better."
And it's as close to a fountain of youth as may ever exist. "There is so much evidence and research to support that staying active is one of the biggest preventive methods we have against physical vulnerability to falls and cognitive problems," said Stanford Hospital's Rita Ghatak, PhD, Director, Aging Adult Services.
For people whose motion has been restricted, or who haven't done specific exercises for flexibility and strength, building a helpful routine isn't complicated and can easily be done at home. Stanford Hospital sponsors a free exercise program for seniors called Strong for Life. Staff instructors with trained volunteers visit local senior centers for group classes. The program is so popular that even with 10 trainers, it's hard to keep up with the demand for additional classes.