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
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.