Old man shooting a basketball ball and looking to sky in the park

Old man shooting a basketball ball and looking to sky in the park

This is the second in a series of posts explaining my Healthy Aging Checklist.

Remember, for the healthiest aging we need to do the things that optimize health — and health care — so that the brain and body work at their best for now, and for the future.

I’ve identified six broad actions to take:

The Healthy Aging Checklist:

In this post, we’ll cover proven ways to promote and maintain physical health as one ages.

6 Proven Ways to Promote Physical Health

Here are the six “healthy living” actions that I recommend, for promoting physical health in all older adults. They all have a solid track record (which cannot be said for everything I see recommended online). They are also good “bang-for-the-buck,” in part because they provide real benefits to just about everyone who adopts them. And they help whether or not an older person has already developed chronic illnesses.

Now, the truth is that many of these overlap with the recommended actions for brain health. But I’ve tried to provide more links and resources related to how these actions benefit aspects of physical health such as mobility, heart health, and immune function.

Get Your Free Physical Health Cheatsheet! The 6 actions to maintain physical health in a handy PDF checklist that you can print or save. Includes useful resources for each action item. Click here now.

1. Exercise regularly.

Why: Exercise helps older adults maintain their strength and mobility, plus it improves just about every physical health outcome you can imagine, provided you don’t overdo it or get injured.

A 2014 research study in JAMA  found that a structured exercise program — involving sedentary adults aged 70-89 —  reduced the risk of “major mobility disability.” Exercise also tends to improve mood, which has positive effects on the rest of the body.

Note: Research has shown that even less-than-recommended exercise brings health benefits. So remember: it’s better to do a little bit every day than nothing at all. In fact, the most important thing is to find something that you can keep doing. Walking is relatively easy for many. Otherwise, classes or structured courses often help older adults stick with an exercise program.

If you are already exercising regularly, the next step is to try to incorporate all four different types of exercise that benefit older adults: strength, endurance, balance, flexibility. You can learn more at Go4Life below.

For more information:

2. Don’t smoke.

Why: Smoking is bad for just about every aspect of physical health. It’s especially damaging to the lungs, but also increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and various forms of cancer. Many tobacco-related diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, can cause difficult symptoms for years.

Fortunately, even after a senior has developed smoking-related health problems, quitting smoking will reduce symptoms and one’s chance of a premature death: one study found that quitting smoking between ages 55-64 added four years to one’s life expectancy.

Note: Quitting smoking is hard, since nicotine is physically and psychologically addictive. Only 3-6% of people who try to quit on their own succeed. Medications and counseling have been proven to help quit smoking; combining these correctly usually increases the chance of successfully quitting to 30%. Many people need to try quitting a few times, so don’t let a past failure to quit stop you from trying again.

For more information:

3. Get enough sleep. 

Why: Studies have found that chronic sleep deprivation is linked to increased cardiovascular disease, increased levels of inflammatory blood markers, and decreased immune function. Being sleep-deprived also causes fatigue, which can make it hard to be physically active (and is bad for mood, too).

Note:  Aging does cause sleep to become lighter and more fragmented, and may cause people to need a little less sleep than when they were younger. That said, chronic sleep difficulties or often waking up feeling tired is not normal in aging. Older adults often suffer from true sleep problems that can be treated once they are properly evaluated.

For more information:

4. Avoid chronic stress.

Why: Feeling chronically stressed has been linked to physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, and decreased immune function. Research suggests that this may be because stress can accelerate “cellular aging,” and also may promote inflammatory markers in the body.

Note: Common causes of stress in older adults include financial stress, relationship stress, work-related stress, and caregiving stress. To reduce chronic stress, it’s best to combine general approaches (such as improving sleep, exercising, meditation, relaxation strategies, etc) with approaches that can help you cope with your specific source of stress.

For more information:

5. Maintain a healthy weight.

Why: The main reason is that obesity is a major risk factor for disability in late life. (Strange but true: as people get older the link between obesity and premature death gets weaker, a phenomenon sometimes called the “obesity paradox in aging.”)

Obesity — usually defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more — worsens arthritis. It’s also been linked to many health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and glucose intolerance, certain types of cancer, and sleep-related breathing disorders.

Studies have found that when overweight or obese people lose even a modest amount of weight — such as 5-7% of one’s current weight — this can improve physical health and symptoms

Do keep in mind that unintentional weight loss is a major red flag  when it comes to the health of older adults, and should always be brought to the attention of health professionals.

Note: Historically a low-fat diet has been recommended for weight loss and health reasons. However, I believe there’s a lot to be said for the theory that high-carbohydrate foods (which are often low-fat) increase insulin levels, promote hunger, and make it harder for people to lose weight. If you need to lose weight, you may want to do some research into various approaches before discussing with your doctor and coming to your own conclusions as to which weight-loss strategy to try. Older adults need to be especially careful about not losing too much lean body mass during intentional weight loss.

For more information:

6. Eat a “healthy diet.”

Why: We know that for many people, the way they eat can affect certain aspects of physical health. A healthy diet is one that doesn’t provoke negative health effects, such as being prone to take on extra weight, develop insulin resistance, develop atherosclerosis, or have uncomfortable symptoms in the belly or bowels.

Frail older people may also need extra calories and protein, since malnutrition becomes more common as people age.

Note: Exactly what should or shouldn’t be eaten, as part of a healthy diet, is being constantly debated among experts and the general public. As the effect of diet on a person is very individual, it’s important to follow how one’s body seems to respond to a given diet. (Pay attention to how you feel, how your weight changes, and how your blood sugar and lipids change.) In general, research suggests that a diet high in fiber and low in saturated fat and added sugars — such as the Mediterranean diet — is a good choice for many.

For more information:

An Optional Extra Way to Promote Physical Health

7. Tinker with your nutrition and your microbiome

Why: Recent research suggests that a person’s health can be significantly influenced by the bacterial community (the microbiome) we all carry within our guts and in our body. The microbiome itself seems to be influenced by one’s diet as well as by other factors.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that taking extra vitamins and supplements — including popular anti-oxidants — promote health. The 2014 US Preventive Services task force report on this topic concluded the evidence of benefit is weak. Furthermore, commercially available supplements have often been found to be of poor quality, and “anti-aging” vitamins have no evidence behind them. To promote physical health, I believe the microbiome will prove to be much more important than tinkering with supplements.

Note: It is not yet clear how we should advise people to optimize their microbiome, other than to eat a lot of fiber and minimize antibiotics. For some people, eliminating certain foods seems to improve well-being or certain symptoms. Research into the benefits of fermented foods and probiotics is ongoing. There is also fascinating research being done on how the microbiome changes with aging, and might influence certain aspects of the body’s aging.

For more information:

What’s Your Plan for Promoting Physical Health While Aging?

So that’s my short list of activities that are most important to do, to promote physical health while aging.

Which of these are you already doing, and which of these will you try to work on in the next few months?

Also, if you think I’ve missed anything major in the list (it has to be something with good evidence and that works for virtually all older adults), please let me know in the comments below.

Get Your Free Physical Health Cheatsheet! The 6 actions to maintain physical health in a handy PDF checklist that you can print or save. Includes useful resources for each action item. Click here now.

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