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November 25, 2020

Exercise provides an antidote to poor health – but few older men get enough

The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has many men paying a steep physical price

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Exercise Benefits Older Men Source/Image licensed from Ingram Images

Among men 65 and over, only 18% meet federal health guidelines for weekly aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity.

Exercise is the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle for men and women of all ages — particularly men over 50. For those who believe that hitting 50 is the finish line for the resiliency of a man’s body, think again. Men maintain the ability to grow muscle mass, keep their flexibility and leverage the physical and mental benefits of exercise well into their later years.

At a time when stress is at an all-time high from the ravages of COVID-19, which has many men paying a physical price, it’s critical to refresh our understanding of the importance of exercise and its significant health benefits. Not to mention the impact on our families, longevity and quality of life.

As we struggle with the resurgence of the pandemic and a bad case of COVID fatigue, restating the case for exercise among men over 50 can certainly serve men, and be equally impactful to those that rely on them. Aerobic activities and muscle-strengthening are at the heart of this case.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, regular physical activity is one of the most important things people can do to improve their health. Yet, nearly 80% of adults are not meeting their key guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity. Among men 65 and over, only 18% meet both guidelines. For men between 25 and 64, the rate increases to 27%. Still disappointing.

When it comes to a man’s ability to rebuild muscle and maintain it, it’s never too late, says Dr. Thomas W. Storer, director of the exercise physiology and physical function lab at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. No matter your age, progressive resistance training is the best means to build muscle mass and counteract sarcopenia, the age-related muscle loss which can cause men to lose as much as 30% of their muscle mass during their lifetime.

The benefits of exercise

In reporting on the benefits of exercise, the Mayo Clinic points out that it lowers the risk of heart attack, many types of cancer and age-related injuries. The Mayo Clinic also notes that regular exercise strengthens the brain just as it does the body, citing a study showing improved muscle tone and cognitive function in older adults who lifted weights two to three times a week. Just walking briskly for 30 to 60 minutes, three to five times a week, contributed to measurable brain improvements.

Your regimen

So, if you want to start exercising, exactly what type of regimen do the experts suggest? The Physical Activity Guidelines for older adults published byHHS provide a number of recommendations, with the primary focus on aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. 

Under the guidelines, adults should do at least 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week. According to HHS, older adults who cannot do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week because of chronic conditions should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow.

Adults also should do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity involving all major muscle groups at least two days per week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.

A deeper dive into these exercise groups can inform the design of your regime.

Aerobic activity

According to the Cleveland Clinic, men over 50 can be just as healthy, fit and active as younger guys. Aerobic or cardio exercise gets the heart pumping and uses large muscle groups. For men over 50, they recommend walking, biking and swimming. To this list, Cambridge Fitness adds rowing and cross training. Walking, biking and rowing come with the ability to use treadmills and machines as an indoor option.

Rounding out the inventory of aerobic exercises is running, use of an elliptical machine and jumping rope. Running at a moderate speed is a great way to burn substantial calories. The elliptical machine gives the user an effective cardio workout while reducing stress on the muscles and joints, and jumping rope is an effective way of burning a ton of calories in a short amount of time.

A 60-year-old’s advice on strength training

Grant Donovan is a 60-year-old trainer who believes that it is more important than ever for men over 50 to be active. He says lifting weights regularly will help keep your weight under control and maintain muscle mass and strength. Exercises like deadlifts, squats, lunges, and bench presses are some of the weight training basics and are great to implement in a workout. Full-body workouts are a way of delaying aging and maintaining and improving muscle mass, and strength training two or three times a week is enough. 

In addition to weight training, pilates can be a good strength training workout according to the Mayo Clinic. They define pilates as method of exercise that consists of low-impact flexibility and muscular strength and endurance movements that emphasizes proper postural alignment, core strength and muscle balance. Many experts suggest that weight training and pilates can be complementary exercises.

Finding your niche

Johns Hopkins Medicine offers some additional context for the 50-plus man looking to start exercising. Exercise should be approached carefully and doesn’t have to be vigorous to be helpful. Even a walk around the park can be positive, as can 30 minutes of working in the garden. You don't even have to do 30 minutes of exercise at one time. Research now suggests it’s just as effective to spread three 10-minute periods of exercise over the day.

The federal guidelines and the alternatives offered by the medical experts give men options when it comes to exercise – whether aerobic or muscle-strengthening activities. The key, of course, is starting and sustaining the healthy behavior.

In the context of the pandemic and the health benefits offered by exercise, the case is strong. Exercise may be just the antidote men need to manage this next surge and fight COVID fatigue. Yes, the time may finally be right for you to get serious about this cornerstone of good health.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president of strategic alliances at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website 

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