Stand up for health!
A few months ago, I went to the Seattle Opera to see Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”. I love the opera—the music, the costumes, the voices, and the spectacle. Not surprisingly, I noticed that the overwhelming majority of the audience was in my age group and beyond—graying adults. But I also observed that many of these opera-loving folks had trouble getting up those two flights of stairs at McCaw Hall! Many needed canes and walkers to get around.
I started to wonder—why do so many older adults have trouble with the ordinary functional movement of everyday life? Many elders have trouble with walking, standing up, climbing stairs, carting groceries, bending down to take the dishes out of the dishwasher, or taking laundry out of the dryer.
Despite my regular exercise routine, I frequently use my arms and hands to hold on to the bannister walking up or going down the stairs, especially in the morning or at night. Instead of putting on my shoes standing on one foot, I frequently sat down to put them on. When I wake up in the morning, I might use my hands and arms to keep my balance on the way down the hallway. Sitting on the floor or cross-legged, is increasingly uncomfortable. In spite of my vigorous exercise program, climbing stairs takes more effort.
A landmark study, published in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention (December 2012) evaluated 2000 men and women, ages 51-80, ability to sit and stand from the floor. They were rated on a scale of 1-10 depending on how much they used their knees or their arms to sit down and stand up. A higher score reflected their ability to stand up with less use of their limbs. They followed these adults for an average of 6 years and found that there was a significant increase in mortality in individuals with lower scores. Even a one-point increase resulted in a 21% lower mortality. Check out this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCYkzo2oi1Y) to see how to try this test on your own. I can tell you, it isn’t easy!
Starting in middle age, adults begin to lose muscle mass, coordination, flexibility, and balance. Fortunately, it’s a slow decline! But, it happens. One of the reasons that lower back problems are so common in mid-life is the loss of “core” muscle strength which keeps our backs and tummies strong and flexible. Studies show that sedentary adults over 40 lose 1% if their lean muscle every year. Do the math—by age 65, you will have lost 25% of your lean muscle. Not a pretty picture.
Maya Ray, a yoga teacher and Rolfer in New York City says—“It’s important to move in ways that you don’t move most of the time. Taking a 30-minute run or going to the gym does not make up for sitting at a desk for eight hours.”
So, if this gradual decline is inevitable, what can we middle-aged and up folks do to slow the tide?
- Walk, walk, and walk some more. Walking is a great exercise, easy to do, and keeps your lower body strong. Furthermore, so much of everyday life requires moving around on your feet. The more you do, the more you will be able to do as you age.
- Climb stairs whenever you can. Don’t take the elevator unless you have to. Don’t lean on the bannister when you are going up. Use your lower body to lift yourself up each stair.
- Sit up from chairs without using your arms. Stand on one foot while you are waiting in line. Sit on the floor and read. Take frequent stretch breaks. Get a “standing desk”. Practice yoga or Tai Chi. Walk barefoot on the beach. Take frequent stretch breaks during the day.
The long-term goal for all of us—to be a spry 85-year-old that can function independently with a high quality of life.