It’s easy to assume that all the changes you notice happening in your body in your 50s are due to ageing. But some are not inevitable. Here are 5 things you can do to try and ensure you’re fighting fit in your 50s. These are the cornerstones of preserving physical health into old age.
1. Muscle up
Loss of muscle mass starts around age 30 and by the time the average person reaches 70, they will have lost 25 per cent of their muscle mass. Scientists now know that not all of this loss of muscle mass that occurs as people age (known as sarcopenia) is due to the process of ageing — some of it is due just to inactivity and disuse. The good news is that older adults who strength train regularly can regain a substantial amount of this loss of muscle function and strength.
And having toned muscles is not just beneficial when you want to lift a sack of potatoes — muscles have other functions. Muscles burn calories when they’re at rest. Muscles burn nearly 10 times as many calories when they’re at rest than fat, so having good muscle tone can help keep your weight in control.
Muscles also help insulin to do its job of driving sugar from the bloodstream into the cells, thus reducing the blood sugar level. The muscles of physically active people are more sensitive to the effects of insulin, so they help to avoid excess sugar building up in the bloodstream, which over time can lead to type 2 diabetes and the metabolic syndrome.
Not maintaining your muscle mass is a double whammy, as typically when people lose muscle mass as they age, they put on fat due to having a lower metabolic rate and eating more calories than they burn off. Extra fat tissue can make your body resistant to the action of insulin, causing your levels of sugar and insulin to increase in the bloodstream. This is unhealthy and a sign that a person is heading for type 2 diabetes.
Strength training by doing exercises that use resistance, e.g. from your body weight, free weights or gym weight machines, can strengthen your muscles and so help in the functions mentioned above. Strength training can also give modest improvements in reducing high cholesterol and blood pressure.
2. Enhance your aerobic capacity
Aerobic capacity, which is a person’s ability to use oxygen during exercise, declines with age, even starting as early as the second and third decades. However, recent studies have shown that people who start with higher aerobic capacity and who maintain physical activity throughout life manage to have greater physical fitness at all points of the ageing process. Very active people can have aerobic capacities that are equivalent to or better than those of less active people who are 20 years younger.
So preserving your aerobic capacity by doing regular aerobic exercise will help you to walk and do the activities of daily living as you grow older — in fact taking part in regular training can raise your aerobic capacity by 15 to 25 per cent.
Regular aerobic exercise also benefits your heart, making it work more efficiently, and can lower blood pressure, boost your immune system, reduce depression and help you to avoid stroke, diabetes and some cancers. Moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise also improves your blood lipid profile, including the ratio of ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL-cholesterol) to ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol).
3. Get flexible
There are some changes that happen to your muscles and joints as you age that can’t be avoided: the water content of your tendons reduces making them stiffer; cartilage degenerates; the synovial fluid content of the joints is reduced making them stiffer; and ligaments shorten and lose some flexibility. However, even in the young, inactivity results in stiffness in joints and reduced flexibility, so it’s not all age-related.
The good news is that keeping up a regular stretching programme to keep your muscles from becoming shortened will allow greater range of motion around your joints. It will also ensure that your joints are lubricated regularly, which will help the joint move more easily. Exercises such as yoga, pilates and tai chi will also help to keep you flexible. They will also help you to maintain your agility and balance, which can reduce the chance of you having a fall later in life.
You should also try to include some stretching exercises in your warm-up and cool-down routines, as not only will this promote your ease of movement, but it will also help to prevent and recover from injuries.
4. Look after your bones
Most men and women reach their peak bone mass by age 30, but loss of bone mass occurs differently between the sexes. For men, bone loss usually begins when they are in their 50s and progresses more slowly than it does in women, until ages 65 to 70 when men and women tend to lose bone at the same rate.
For women, bone mass stays level after age 30 until menopause, when bone is lost rapidly due to the sharp decline in the amount of the hormone oestrogen. Oestrogen is responsible for keeping a balance between new bone being formed and existing bone being broken down. With the loss of oestrogen, rates of bone breakdown after menopause escalate to an estimated 2 to 3 per cent per year. So, is there anything you can do to halt this decline?
Studies have shown that a high calcium intake will slow the rate of bone loss in postmenopausal women; however, the evidence for increased calcium in older men is not strong — the current Australian recommendations for calcium are given below.
|Calcium intake: what’s recommended|
|Adults||Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for calcium|
|Men: 51–70 years||1000 mg/day|
|Women: 51–70 years||1300 mg/day|
|Source: Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing and NHMRC. Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand, including Recommended Dietary Intakes, 2006. Endorsed 9 September 2005.|
This so-called vitamin encompasses several substances that help your body to absorb calcium from food, so it is important to make sure your body makes enough vitamin D. Your body cannot normally obtain adequate vitamin D from food and needs sunlight or supplements to make sufficient amounts.
Osteoporosis Australia says a person needs to expose their hands, face and arms (or an equivalent area of skin) to sunlight for about 6 to 8 minutes most days in summer to produce sufficient vitamin D for bone health. In winter and in southern Australia, much longer exposure times to sunlight are needed to produce the same amount of vitamin D. People who have olive or pigmented skin also need longer exposure to sunlight to produce the same amount of vitamin D.
Drinking less alcohol can help to protect your bones. Consuming more than 2 alcoholic drinks per day may decrease bone formation and reduce your body’s ability to absorb calcium.
Smokers tend to lose bone mass faster than non-smokers.
Numerous studies have been conducted on the effects of exercise on bone mass. Although the results have sometimes been inconsistent, it appears that some forms of exercise can benefit your bone mass at any age, either by increasing it by a few per cent, or by slowing down the rate of decline normally associated with ageing. However, to achieve these benefits, it is important to do the right type of exercise. You should include exercise that involves impact, such as walking, jogging and jumping (as the impact of your foot hitting the ground strengthens bone), and/or resistance training with weights (as greater loads are placed on the bone).
Although exercises such as cycling and swimming where there is no impact are very good for other aspects of your health, they appear to convey little benefit to your bones.
So the outcome of these studies indicate that exercise that involves resistance training and/or impact should be included into your weekly exercise programme to prevent your bone mass from falling to osteoporotic levels. Also, it does seem that regular exercise can help people to retain good use of their muscles, keeping them strong, fit and agile, and making them less likely to experience the falls that can have devastating consequences as we get older.
For middle-aged women during and after the menopause, hormone therapy (HT) has been shown to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, however, HT may have side effects as well as benefits. For men, hormone substitution is effective in improving bone density only in those who have low testosterone levels.
Found in tea, coffee, cola and cocoa, caffeine promotes the loss of calcium from the body in the urine. To prevent caffeine from leaching calcium from your bones in this way, limit your consumption of caffeine-containing drinks to 1 or 2 cups a day and make sure your diet contains enough calcium.
5. Boost your immune system
Doctors believe that the immune system declines in function as people grow older and is not as effective as it is in the young. Certainly, older people suffer from more infections, cancer and inflammatory diseases than younger people. Much has been made in the media of the ability of nutritional supplements to stave off this immune system decline, but it pays to be wary of the hype.
Doctors know that there are specific nutrients that are important in maintaining the immune system, such as vitamin C, vitamin B6, zinc, and protein. Eating a balanced diet and even eating more of some of these nutrients than is recommended for average intakes may help to prevent some of the age-related loss of immune function. However, you should always consult your doctor if you are considering taking more than the recommended dose of vitamins or minerals, as there may be side effects or interactions that you are not aware of.
As you enter your 50s, your sense of smell will start to deteriorate and this may account for people tending to eat less as they grow older. The use of herbs and spices may make food more appealing and also can improve its nutritional quality.
Lastly, regular moderate exercise can contribute to having a healthy immune system. Exercise boosts the circulation which brings oxygen and nutrients to the organs and cells of the immune system and allows them to function more effectively.