Physical Activity for the Elderly Is Part of Human Evolution, Study Says

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The days when it was widely believed that senior citizens should, for their own sake, limit their physical activities to playing with the TV remote control and taking slow walks in the park are long gone. But no one seems to be sure just how much activity a healthy octogenarian should do.

According to recent research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, maintaining a high degree of activity is good for the elderly and apparently always has been. Basing their research on the active lifestyles of our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors of around 12,000 years ago, the authors maintain that even back then it was common for humans to live into their 70s because of their continued physical activity.

Remaining active well past their reproductive years had enormous benefits for our active ancestors, such as enhanced blood flow, reduced storage of fat, efficient repair of DNA processes and the release into the bloodstream of anti-inflammatory compounds. In what they call the “active grandparent hypothesis”, the researchers propose that evolution favoured those who engaged in lifelong physical activity because it reduces vulnerability to chronic disease.

Fast forward to us today in the West, trying to recover from a sedentary lifestyle with a renewed emphasis on physical fitness and exercise. But how often do we see, in advertising, on TV or in the cinema, images of senior citizens on bicycles or in fitness studios? Almost never.

It seems that we are still not comfortable with seeing our ageing parents or even our grandparents pumping iron or riding a bike up a long, steep slope. And, let’s face it, many elderly people are also more than a little wary of tackling that slope – or even taking a brisk ride on flat ground. And yet, as this study notes, there has been a great deal of research emphasizing the fact that moving more and doing more as you age peps up the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and improves the body’s immune function.

Neel Anand, M.D., professor of orthopaedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles, told Bicycling magazine that people who think they need more rest as they age are mistaken. “Some people think they need to rest more as they get older – especially if they develop osteoarthritis – but the opposite is true for building bone density,” he said. The trick is to ease into your exercise program. “Get on your feet and move, for at least 10 minutes every hour,” Anand said.

Setting goals and maintaining a consistent schedule help make physical activity into a routine, and then you can gradually increase the variety of your activities – and boost your enjoyment. “You don’t need to plan on hours at the gym. Start with a walk or hiking,” he said. After that, you can move on to other, more intense activities, such as simple weightlifting, yoga and, of course, cycling. The key is to keep moving.

Because as the study’s authors conclude: “Extended human healthspans and lifespans are both a cause and effect of habitual physical activity, helping explain why lack of lifelong physical activity in humans can increase disease risk and reduce longevity.”