Ron Marinucci - July, 2014 Column: Seniors and Running

Ron Marinucci - July, 2014 Column: Seniors and Running

Aging and health. Likely most people don’t start thinking about the connection until they get, well, older. It’s well established that exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, provides many benefits as we age. Many of us know the physiological and physical benefits. But there are many advantages that aerobic exercise, including and especially running, that are brought to our mental health and well-being.

I was reminded of this during my recent physical examination, actually a stress test on the treadmill. My doctor, Athanasius Lobo, spent a deal of time talking to me, as he usually does. In addition to my current state of health, he also addressed the future. Specifically, he outlined how I can better maintain my mental quality of life as I enter by 80s and 90s.

Now that’s good news, that I have a good chance of making it another 20 or 25 years. But Dr. Lobo has always been concerned not only about longevity, but the quality of life in those later years.

He knows I exercise a lot, with lots of running and, when the warmer months are here, biking. In fact, he often refers to me as “my marathon man,” although I haven’t run one in a number of years. But I still put in a lot of miles in my running shoes. Before my stress test on the treadmill, he remarked, “This will be nothing for you.” And we proceeded to talk through much of it.

Of course, Dr. Lobo does preach the physical benefits of exercise, in my case, mostly running. Particularly relative to the cardio-vascular ones, “The less [exercise] we do,” he said, “the worse it [our health] is.”

For instance, he mentioned “revascularization.” As we exercise and increase the demands made on our hearts and the vessels serving them, new blood vessels are created. They help to handle the increased loads. He used professional athletes as examples. At the peaks of their performances, “Their hearts compensate [for the greater demands made on them] by getting bigger and making more branches. They are regenerated.” But he also noted, “The tragedy is when they retire. They [often] put up their feet and do nothing.” They lose their fitness and worsen their health. And the general population does the same thing. As people age, they do less and less.

In fact, senior citizens—of which I am one—are the least physically active group among all Americans. Studies suggest that one-third or more of all 70-year olds never exercise. I suspect, from personal observation, that these numbers might well be too low and that they extend down to lower age-groups. Americans, from the earliest ages, are becoming less and less physically active.

As Dr. Lobo has constantly preached to me over the years, physical exercise, “your running,” will help “maintain your quality of life” as I age. He suggested I check the Internet for many examples of this, of how we can exercise to make our lives better as we age into our 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s.

It’s pretty clear that running and other aerobic exercise provide many benefits to those who now qualify and masters and senior runners. Regular activities like these have been shown to offer protection against heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and even some cancers. Even more benefits are garnered by incorporating stretching, strength/resistance training, and balancing into exercise routines.

But there is more, as Dr. Lobo and a cursory search of the Internet indicate. Running and other forms of exercise can help seniors maintain their brain health. Much of this stems from what Dr. Lobo called “revascularization.” The physical activity that increases the number of blood vessels similarly increases the blood flow to areas of the brain that affect memory and cognition/thinking. Aerobic exercise can help reduce the effects of aging. In other words, your brain benefits from the increased circulation of blood. In addition, exercise results in increased neuron growth, which stimulates the brain, too.

For some time, running and other forms of aerobic exercise have been used to treat depression. And research indicates they can also protect against memory loss and promote superior brain function, especially compared with more sedentary people. Risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease are decreased by exercise, too.

Any aerobic exercise is beneficial—running, swimming, cycling, and brisk walking. Running might bring the best bang for the buck with benefits. Of course, as Dr. Lobo noted, “We have to be careful with the knees and back. Nobody talks about that.” But he’s never, ever discouraged me from exercising, never suggested I cut back, and he knows how many miles I total most weeks. “Whatever you’re doing,” he’s told me repeatedly over 25 years or more, “keep it up.”

It’s not necessary to become a fanatic about exercising. Thirty or forty-five minutes a day of running or other aerobic activity provide many benefits. If you do more than that, you’re probably running or exercising for more than the physical benefits. Seniors, certainly, and those who haven’t exercised in a while or are overweight should check with their doctors. Personal trainers can provide good advice. When starting, it’s important to begin slowly, taking care not to do too much too soon. This will help avoid injuries and early burnout.

Not much of this information is new. As Dr. Lobo noted, many people still “are not going to listen.” But he’s not pessimistic, not at all. “Keep getting the word out. Write your article.” He added, “It’s like the priest in the pulpit, repreaching every Sunday what Jesus taught.”

It’s clear that when we compare the advantages and benefits of running and other forms of aerobic exercise with the possibilities of being injured or doing nothing at all, the active life is the far better choice. Sitting around for whatever reasons is not good for anyone’s health.

It appears summer is here. Our lilac trees, not bushes, but trees, have blossomed and faded. Temperatures are steadily in the 70s and 80s. And, the deer flies are out—already. I enjoy my summer trail runs. Usually the deer flies don’t show up until the Fourth of July or so, sometimes a little sooner, sometimes a little later. This year they appeared in the middle of June, at least a week early, maybe more. But, on the other hand, they don’t seem to be out there in their usual hordes. I’ve had to start wearing a hat when I run the trails, but, so far, haven’t had to pull out the Tred Not Deer Fly Strips or the fabric softener dryer sheets. I wonder how much longer I can say that!