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Aging, Exercise and Your SpineStewart G. Eidelson, M.D.
Is it possible, like fine wine, to get better with age? In some ways, by staying healthy and remaining active, we can. In fact, studies show that older people who continue to have active lifestyles, experience less health problems as they age.
The progression of aging and it's affects on how we function differ widely among individuals. Over the course of time, the normal aging of tissue causes changes to the anatomy. This is especially true in degenerative changes of the spine. In most people, these changes are gradual. In fact, many people have degenerative changes and don’t know it. They may only become aware of these changes when being examined during a routine checkup.
Degeneration of the spine is complex and often unpredictable. Changes in the anatomy as a result of aging affect the structure and the function of the spine. They may appear in one specific part of the spine (segmentally), in a regional area of the spine, (cervical, thoracic or lumbar), or throughout the spine (globally). When degenerative changes occur in the joints, accompanied by pain and swelling, it is referred to as osteoarthritis. Other degenerative conditions that affect the spine include:
Degenerative Disc Disease
The good news is, there are steps you can take to avoid or reduce your risk of suffering from back pain as you get older. The most important thing you can do is to keep your spine, and the rest of your body, healthy through exercise. Regular checkups with your doctor are also important.
How Exercise Helps
Here are the facts:
- Most older adults don't get enough physical activity.
- Lack of physical activity and poor diet combined are the second largest underlying cause of death in the United States (after smoking).
- Exercise can help older people feel better and enjoy life more, even those who think they're too old or out of shape.
- Regular exercise can improve some diseases and disabilities in older people who already have them. It can improve mood and relieve depression, too.
- Staying physically active can help prevent or delay certain diseases (like degenerative spinal disorders) and disabilities as people grow older.
Before starting any new exercise program, be sure to see your doctor. Talk about the types of activities you are interested in doing and make sure your doctor gives you the ok to do them. You may want to ask your doctor the following questions:
- “Is it safe for me to exercise?”
- “What types of exercises are best for me?”
- “Are there any types of exercise I should avoid?”
- “Do any of my medications make it dangerous for me to do endurance exercises?”
Start slowly, especially if you have not exercised in a long while. Doing too much, too soon can lead to injury.
Drink plenty of fluids when you are exercising. It is very easy to get dehydrated when sweating.
Be aware of your body when you are exercising. Exercising should not hurt or make you feel really tired. You might feel some soreness, a slight discomfort, or a bit weary, but you should not feel pain. If you do, stop exercising and see your doctor. Also, if you experience any of the following symptoms while exercising, stop immediately and seek medical help:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- The feeling that your heart is racing, skipping or fluttering
- Numbness or tingling in your arms or legs
What Do I Need To Do?
The best way to start is to think of an activity that you enjoy. It will be easier to stick with an exercise program if it is something you like to do. Your goal should be to exercise at least 30 minutes each day (or on most days of the week). If you can’t tolerate exercising for 30 minutes all at once, break up your exercises into 10 minutes sessions, 3 times a day.
There are lots of different exercises you can choose from. Follow these 3 steps when choosing an exercise activity:
Step 1. Choose an activity that makes you breath a little harder. This is called endurance exercising. This will help build up your stamina and give you energy to do the things you want to do. How do you know if you are exercising hard enough? If you can talk with no trouble while doing your activity, your exercise is probably too easy; if you can’t talk at all while exercising, you are working too hard. Some good examples are walking, jogging, tennis and bike riding.
Step 2. Do strength training. People lose 20 to 40 percent of their muscle – and along with it their strength – as they age. Scientists have found that a major reason people lose muscle is because they stop doing everyday activities that use muscle power. Strength training exercises can also keep your bones strong and may help you avoid fractures due to fragile bones. You can incorporate strength exercises into your everyday activities. For example, walk briskly or uphill if possible. Take the stairs when you can. Rake the leaves. Use hand tools instead of power tools.
Step 3. Do exercises that help your balance. For example, stand on one foot, then the other, without support. Get up from a sitting position without using your hands or arms. Every now and then, walk heel-to-toe (the toes of the foot in back should almost touch the heel of the foot in front when you walk this way).
Step 4. Don’t forget to stretch! Stretching won't build your endurance or muscles, but it may help keep you limber and flexible.
While you can’t stop the aging process entirely, you can take steps to keep yourself as healthy as possible as you age. The benefits of regular exercise are numerous, so start today! Find an activity you enjoy and find out how wonderful it is to get older!