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“Society in general has a very negative view of age-related physical changes, and it is difficult for aging adults to maintain a healthy body consciousness.”
 Physical Dimensions of Aging
, Waneen W. Spirduso, Karen L. Francis, Priscilla G. MacRae (Human Kinetics, Second Edition, 2005)

“Yes, a positive attitude really does make a difference.” The Real Age Makeover, Michael F. Roizen, MD (Harper Collins 2004)

A vicious cycle develops. As people age, they become less active. The less active they are, the less physical ability and endurance they have. The less physical ability they have, the less inclined they are to be physically active. And the less active they are, the more physical capacity they lose.” Physical Dimensions of Aging 

Great Expectations

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Attitude, Exercise, and Aging

As I wrote recently, I expect no more change in my physique between 65 and 70 than there was from 60 to 65. There was little or no change then, and my plan is to repeat at 70. (See Health & Fitness, article 155, Final Update.) That’s contrary to general expectations, I know, but maintaining--working to improve, actually--my muscle mass from 60 to 65 also went against the tide. At 68, my workouts are going well. I see little or no change when I weigh myself on the Tanita Body Weight/Fat Scale or when I look in the mirror. Why should I expect anything different at 70? My approach is to work hard, continue to challenge myself--and expect the best.  As Dr. Michael Roizen says in The Real Age Makeover, attitude matters. If you think you can, you probably can.

A study reported in the October 2005 Journal of General Internal Medicine explores the relationship between expectation and action.

Lead author Catherine A. Sarkisian, MD, and her internist colleagues are searching for new strategies to motivate aging adults to exercise. “Regular physical activity offers one of the greatest opportunities to extend years of active independent life,” they wrote. “Despite extensive evidence about the benefits of exercise, however, less than 40% of adults aged 65 years and older exercise regularly. Even more discouraging, there has been little success in the past 2 decades in motivating older Americans to adopt and sustain physically active lifestyles.”

Earlier research and their own clinical experience led them to test the influence of low- and high age expectations on physical activity. They surveyed 636 adults age 65 and above regarding their age expectations (low to high in equal quintiles) and their physical activity in the previous week. High scores indicated expecting higher health-related quality of life with aging and low score indicated decline. The exercise behavior survey measured how many minutes in the previous week they walked, swam, biked or participated in other types of aerobic exercise; again, the answers were categorized into five groups from low to high.

They found that participants who expect their health to decline were much less likely to be physically active compared to those who had high expectations. “Participants with the lowest quintile of age-expectations had [a 95% chance] of reporting <30 minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity in the previous week,” the researchers reported. On the other hand, “the greater the amount of exercise reported in the previous week, the greater the percentage of participants scoring in the highest quintile of [age-expectations].”

“Harboring low age-expectations may act as a barrier to physical activity among sedentary older adults,” they concluded. Low expectations are likely to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Exercise and Well-Being

“Not only does health status influence perceptions of well-being, but people’s feeling of well-being also influence other health-related behavior,” Waneen Spirduso and her co-authors write in Physical Dimensions of Aging. “Those who have feelings of well-being and life satisfaction are more likely to maintain their health and prevent disease.” Among other things, they are more likely to be physically active and exercise regularly.

Both physiological and psychological mechanisms are thought to be involved in emotional well-being. The likely physical effects of exercise are well known. They include increased blood flow to the brain, production and regulation of hormones, release of endorphins, and reduction of stress and anxiety. The psychological mechanisms are less well-known, so let's focus on the emotional connections.  

Dr Spirduso and her co-authors say that biological theories alone “are probably inadequate for complete understanding” of the relationship between exercise and emotional function. “Some of the psychosocial hypotheses that have been proposed are mastery, social interaction and approval, and distraction.”

The mastery hypothesis is probably the most obvious. In the words of the authors, “Increases in physical strength, endurance, and ability provide individuals with a feeling that they have more control over their environment and, thus, they are less vulnerable.” This, of course, promotes a sense of well-being. On the other hand, a person who has experienced good health and superior fitness throughout his or her adult life and then encounters an age-related problem, like I did recently with my bladder (article 155, Health & Fitness), may be negatively affected and suffer a diminution in emotional well-being. Taking control and overcoming the problem, as I did, can restore and perhaps increase feelings of mastery and well-being.

Many adults get a psychological boost by exercising with friends or in a formal program, perhaps at a community center or a commercial health club. “Because the social interaction that occurs in these settings may substantially improve mood, anxiety, or depression,” Spirduso and colleagues relate, “social interaction is another possible mechanism mediating the relationship between exercise and emotional health.” Some program directors say the social contacts may be almost as desirable as the health benefits. This is especially true for those who “perceive a social deficit in their lives.” The approval and encouragement of group participants or outside family and friends may also improve mood and feelings of self-efficacy. The other side of the coin is that some people may prefer to exercise alone and suffer a psychological detriment in a group setting. Spirduso et al. say that the need for social interaction is highly individual.

Lastly, the distraction hypothesis holds that “exercise may be considered a diversion from the stresses of daily life.” I offered a similar view in the “Training Psychology” section of Ripped 2: It’s important to have a sanctuary where we’re in control, even if it’s only in the gym. The hour or so I spend in the gym calms me for the rest of my day. Controlling the stress that I undergo in my gym fortifies me for the chaos on the outside.

Exploring the Upper Limits

Spirduso, Francis, and MacRae end their book with an upbeat chapter on the performance levels of elite older athletes. “One of the best ways to determine human physical potential throughout the life span,” they observe, “is to study athletic performances of individuals at different ages.” They emphasize, however, that we are still exploring the upper limits for older adults. No matter what the sport (track and field, swimming, cycling, rowing, weight lifting, etc), the records for master athletes are remarkable--and likely to keep going up.

“The most striking example is that for men aged 60 to 69 years, the United States record in the [25-mile] cycling road race is only 14% lower than the U.S. record set by young men,” they state. Nevertheless, they say, “It is likely that the observed age decrements in the oldest groups are overestimated. Age records have been improving every year as the popularity of masters’ competitions increases and more and more people compete.” What’s more, they add, “most researchers believe that even the most zealous of elderly competitors usually do not train as intensely as young athletes do.” (See article 26c, “The Competitive Edge,” The Age Factor category.) As the numbers increase, so too will the fervor--and the results.

Masters athletes “inspire an upward look…and give hope” for everyone, Dr. Spirduso and her co-authors conclude. Absolutely. I’m not inclined to listen to conventional wisdom (CW) which says my physique should decline now and in the future. CW, like the news media, is almost always negative, expecting the worst. I don’t buy it. That’s no way to live. Expect--and work for--the best, and that’s probably what you’ll get.

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