Ask Your Doctor if Exercise is Right for You

August 8, 2017

You’ve just turned 65 and you go to your doctor seeking advice about how to stay as healthy as possible for the next 10, 20, 30 even 40 years. What does your doctor tell you? Well, advising some more exercise may be the best care they could provide.

In fact, this is the kind of prescription that can really serve patients well – especially older patients. The single leading health characteristic that distinguishes older adults from younger adults is multiple chronic conditions. The World Health Organization ranks non-communicable diseases as one of the top four leading risk factors for mortality worldwide. Increasingly, physicians and other health professionals are beginning to recognize physical activity as not only a means of prevention, but also treatment for chronic conditions in older patients.

As some of the most inactive people on the planet, Canadians could benefit from more exercise in their week. Just over half of all Canadians over the age of 20 are physically active, compared to two-thirds of Americans over the age of 18. The international exercise guideline for older adults recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity per week, which can include jogging, running, biking, swimming or any number of other activities. Moderate and vigorous intensity activities vary depending on each person’s capacity. Unfortunately, only about 12 per cent of Canadians aged 65 to 79 meet this standard.

As our population ages, we’re going to be seeing an increase in the incidents and rate of chronic conditions in our society. The role that exercise and adhering to the international exercise guideline play in reducing the impact of chronic conditions on the overall health of our older adults is far too underappreciated. For example, exercise has proven benefits in treating and preventing 30 different chronic conditions. In fact, increased exercise improves blood pressure, diabetes, lipid profile, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and neurocognitive function, and is associated with decreased mortality and age-related morbidity.

In short, staying as active as possible as you age is one of the best things you can do to stay healthy and independent.

Here’s the bad news: the reverse is also true. A lack of physical activity and exercise will likely lead to a lack of independence. Less active older adults tend to also have more doctor visits, hospitalizations, and more medications for more illnesses. Inactive older adults also experience higher rates of falls, obesity, heart disease and early death.

Given these sobering realities, it’s clear that there are public and global health benefits to encouraging older adults to exercise more frequently. There are also benefits to the overall sustainability of our health care systems. About 16% of Canadians are over the age of 65, yet older adults account for almost half of health care costs. These numbers are only expected to rise. However, if physicians and other allied health professionals encourage older adults to become more active, it could dramatically reduce the amount and kind of services they will need to remain independent as they age. In fact the biggest positive change occurs when an inactive person becomes somewhat active (roughly 75-90 minutes of physical activity per week). So, it’s crucial to give folks a nudge in the right direction.

The most effective ways that family physicians can encourage their patients to become more active is to show them that, as health professionals, they are invested in their success. One strategy is to write written goals – or a prescription. Just as important, however, is for physicians to follow up with their patients to make sure they have fulfilled their physical activity prescriptions.

While there are clear health and health system benefits to increasing exercise and physical activity among older adults, one underrated, but equally important benefit is the increased social connections that older adults can gain through regular exercise. Physical activity can be an effective catalyst for social activity. Signing up for classes, joining a team or just exercising with someone are great ways to strengthen social connections while improving physical health.

Taking up physical activity and exercise as we age can help us all live healthy, active, engaged and productive lives well into our later years. More than maintaining our flexibility, strengthening our muscles and improving our balance, regular physical exercise helps to sharpen our minds and deepen our social connections. Whether it’s riding a bike, taking a walk, rowing a boat or going for a swim, we should all aim to be more physically active this summer.

Dr. Jane Thornton is a former Olympian, world rowing champion, and resident doctor at Western University in London, Ontario.

Allan McKee