The idea of slowing down as you get older may seem natural enough.
But it’s one of the last things you should do.
Experts have long known that more activity promotes better health as people age, but researchers in one study wanted to understand why.
They found that humans are uniquely designed to benefit from increased activity as they age.
In many species, animals die shortly after their ability to reproduce ends. Why do humans survive for decades after their period of maximum reproductive usefulness has ended?
Comparing early hunter-gatherer societies to monkeys, the researchers found that monkeys are relatively inactive, and they typically live to be about 35 to 40 years old in the wild.
Early hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, often lived seven decades — about 20 years past the typical age to have children. These people, who lived about 40,000 years ago, spent about 135 minutes a day in moderate to vigorous physical activity.
That’s about six to 10 times more activity than the typical American today.
The findings support the idea that humans evolved to require more physical activity as they age.
Exercise is stressful and has effects on your body at the molecular, cellular and tissue levels. It is essential for your body to rebuild stronger so that you can live longer.
This strength-building process also likely protects against chronic diseases that kill most Americans, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and perhaps even some cancers.
“That perspective is fascinating,” says Phillip Adler, PhD, a licensed athletic trainer and operations manager for Spectrum Health Orthopedic Outreach. “But it’s also scary, because so many things in our culture and society push people to become less active as we get older, rather than more.”
dr. Adler said he was inspired by the researchers’ sharp distinction between longevity, which measures how long we live, versus health span, which assesses the quality of our lives.
Aging well requires a concerted effort to become more active, whether you’re fully sedentary or already fit, said Dr. Adler.
His advice? Start small, because big numbers — 135 minutes of daily activity or 10,000 steps a day — can sometimes be intimidating.
“Activity doesn’t have to be difficult and it doesn’t have to take hours,” he said.
Some tricks he uses to help people get up and move:
Stay active indoors
Bad weather – or just the prospect of putting on the hiking boots – sometimes keeps many people confined to their homes. dr. Adler and his relatives sometimes choose to walk in.
“If you’re watching TV, get up during commercials and even walk around the house for a minute or two,” he said.
Go for high-tech
Technology can help motivate you and hold you accountable, and there is no shortage of options these days.
You don’t need an expensive smartwatch, said Dr. Adler. Most smartphones are equipped with accurate pedometers. Spend some time sifting through your phone settings, exploring Apple Health or Google Fit.
dr. Adler is a fan of affordable fitness watches – both he and his wife wear Amazfit watches, which cost about $40.
Other budget brands that are getting positive reviews from the tech community are the Xiaomi Mi Band series, the Huawei Band Pro series and the cheaper offerings from Fitbit and Garmin.
It’s easy to set up alerts to remind you to get up and move if you’ve been sitting too long.
Combine the feel-good benefits of seeing friends or family with an activity. Make plans for walks, either outdoors — bonus points for vitamin D — or indoors, such as a community center or mall.
It’s important to remember that while physical activity is key to healthy aging, it’s easy to overlook the all-important link to diet and sleep, said Dr. Adler.
Eating better doesn’t just lead to a healthier weight. It intensifies the connection between nutrition and exercise.
Keeping track of your daily calories is a good first step.
“Calories in, calories out can be a simplistic approach to health,” said Dr. Adler. “But it’s helpful for people to understand the relationship between physical activity and what they eat.”
For example, if you learn that 55 minutes of brisk walking can burn 150 calories, you’re more likely to choose a lighter lunch than a fast-food fat bomb.
These same principles apply to sleep. Getting enough rest can help the body heal from the stress of activity.
It also creates a beneficial cycle: the more activity you get, the better you sleep. Better rest also leads to more energy, meaning you’ll feel more receptive to activity later on.
Keep in mind that those who skimp on sleep are at higher risk for chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and depressed immune functions.
For optimal aging—meaning a healthier lifespan, not just a longer one—it all comes down to what Dr. Adler mentions the Big Three, “Healthy aging comes down to managing activity, diet, and sleep as best we can.”