"If you want to be 80 and still be able to get out of bed, then staying active and avoiding obesity are the most important things you can do today," says Patricia Harris, MD, a geriatrician and associate professor at Georgetown University Medical Center who also directs Washington Hospital Center's House Call program, in which she and other doctors visit elderly patients in their homes.
That's because inactivity and obesity are associated with nearly every disease and medical condition capable of tarnishing your golden years, including diabetes, heart disease, degenerative arthritis, osteoporosis, depression, Alzheimer's disease and cancer. One study found that obese women could expect to spend nearly two more years with disabilities in old age than women who maintain a normal weight throughout their life. Other experts suspect the current obesity epidemic may actually decrease average life expectancies in the United States for the first time.
Aging experts nearly universally believe that exercise, on the other hand, just might be the proverbial "silver bullet" when it comes to preventing the infirmity and disease that is too often the hallmark of our later years.
While you can reap the benefits of physical activity at any age, the best time to start is right now, said Dr. Wetle. "The earlier you integrate healthy behavior patterns into your life, the easier it is to continue it as you grow older."
Dr. Wetle, for instance, eschews the campus shuttle bus and walks to meetings in other buildings so she can sneak in the exercise. She does it because with a grandmother who lived to be 99, she knows she has the genes for longevity. "I want a body and brain as healthy as hers was," she says. At 93 her grandmother still attended the congregant meals program for the elderly-not to eat, but to "serve the old people," as she told her granddaughter.
Dawn Marie Fichero, now a 33-year-old public relations executive in Ardmore, PA, wants to emulate her grandfather, who died at "94 years young." Ms. Fichero lived a wild life in her twenties, "smoking, drinking and sweating with the best of them. Late night, early morning revelries quickly turned into not-so-impressive hangovers and 3 p.m. daily wake-up routines."
But at age 30 she returned home to the Philadelphia-area determined to make a change. She enrolled in a master's program; quit drinking, smoking and eating meat; took up yoga to complement a "ferocious gym habit"; and learned the benefits of a 9-to-5 job.
Since then, she says, she completed Broad Street Run (a grueling 10-mile trek through Philadelphia), purchased a hybrid mountain bike and turned into a "granola-eating, water-slugging health fanatic."
"When I close my eyes, I can still hear my great-grandfather say, 'everything in moderation.' But, I am sure he would approve of my not-so-moderate changes."
If you're planning to take up a new exercise program to reduce the health risks posed by age-related changes down the road, check with your health care professional first. Then make sure you integrate some form of strength training into the program. We all lose muscle mass as we age-there's no way around that. But the more muscle mass you have as you age, the less that loss will affect you overall, reducing your risk of independence-ending falls and arthritis.