People who live longer do not have to fear a decrepit old age if they just keep active, say scientists
THE IMAGE of old age is one of increasing physical weakness as muscles gradually deteriorate and become incapable of regaining their former strength.
Dundee University research is vigorously challenging this view. It reports that there is no upper age limit to the benefits of exercise, even among people who have been lifelong couch potatoes.
Marion McMurdo, who recently took up a new chair of ageing and health in Dundee's department of medicine, said: "Our research has shown that even if you've taken no exercise at all until you're 80 years old, it's still very much worthwhile in terms of your health.
"My advice to older people is that the best investment they can make is to invest some time in taking regular exercise."
Dundee investigated the effect of a gentle exercise programme for people in residential homes. The average age of participants was 85 and they had a range of medical problems.
After six months, those taking exercise had improved their muscle strength, making daily activities easier and reducing their dependence on staff, while the control group who had taken no exercise needed more help.
But exercise to improve health does not mean going for the burn. "The exercise scientists, of whom I'm not one, have done us all a great disservice by talking about exercise to improve physical fitness, which in the minds of most people means jogging or playing squash," said Professor McMurdo.
"There's also the misconception that you have to do this vigorous exercise continuously for a fairly prolonged period of time," she added.
"We want to get the message across that what is required to produce health benefits, especially at an age where health is beginning to run into problems, is a moderate amount of exercise done on a regular basis, which need not be continuous."
The Dundee research found that a gradual buildup over six to eight weeks to doing half an hour's exercise every second day, divided into three ten-minute periods, was enough to improve health.
Professor McMurdo said exercise can include brisk walking, mowing the lawn and household chores, as well as swimming, bowling and dancing.
"It really doesn't matter what form of exercise they use. It's doing something that expends some energy."
But pressures on staff in hospitals and residential homes can militate against this. "By and large things are done for old people there, and while that's appropriate up to a point, it can make people more dependent than they need to be," said Professor McMurdo.
"Most staff are overworked, underappreciated and underpaid, and the fastest way to get through the morning's work is not to allow 90-year-old Mrs Brown with the hip replacement to struggle into her clothes, but to help her, and not to wait until she walks 20 yards to the dining room, but put her in a wheelchair."
Old people may expect things to be done for them, seeing it as the reward for their years of toil, but even if it takes them 20 minutes to walk a short distance, this will strengthen their muscles, improve their balance and boost their confidence, Professor McMurdo said.
"The secret of safe exercise at any age is to be active within your own level of comfort. Pain means stop, slow down, and it tends to be younger people who think 'No pain, no gain' and will injure themselves.
"Studies show old people are much more sensible about exercise within their limits, and are more realistic about when they want to stop for a minute or sit."