Q. I am in my mid-fifties and for the first time in my life, I’m seeing signs of “middle-age spread”. Although I lead an active life, I have never exercised on a regular basis. Is it too late for exercise to make a difference?
A. Until recently, conventional wisdom dictated that the human body begins to deteriorate at around age forty-five and there was little to be done about it. It is true that, by about that time, there is a noticeable decline in muscles and an increase in body fat, and with each passing decade the average adult loses up to seven pounds of lean body mass. What is not known, however, is that this decline is not inevitable, and in fact, a rigorous exercise program can prevent or even reverse some of these changes.
We now know that at any age – from nine to ninety – exercise can make a real difference in how you look and feel. And there are solid studies that can prove this, such as the one performed by Dr. Maria Fiatarone at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for the Aged, a long-term care facility in Boston. Dr. Fiatarone developed a carefully planned strength training program to counteract muscle weakness for sedentary women and men in their eighties and nineties. Three days a week, for forty-five minutes at a time, the men and women in the study worked out with weights and on exercise training machines under close supervision.
At the end of ten weeks, Dr. Fiatarone found an average of 113 percent increase in muscle strength among the study’s participants. The exercisers also experienced a 12 percent increase in walking speed and a 28 percent increase in their stair climbing power. What I find particularly interesting is the fact that the people who participated in the study also began to take part in more of the recreational and educational activities offered at the home.
In sum, the exercise not only improved muscle mass and strength, but also had a profound impact on mobility and lifestyle. Think about it: if a ten-week strength training program can have such a dramatic effect on the bodies and minds of women and men in their eighties and nineties, just imagine what it can do for a woman in her fifties or sixties!
There are compelling reasons for women to exercise at any age. First, exercise will certainly help to strengthen and tone your body and can reduce and even eliminate middle-age spread. We also know that regular exercise can bolster the immune system, reduce the risk of developing many different forms of cancer, and can even help prevent heart disease and stroke. For women, weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, running, or jogging, can protect against osteoporosis by helping to maintain bone mass and by increasing muscle mass, which can prevent fractures by absorbing the shock of the fall.
Whether it is working out at the health club, powerwalking with a friend, or following an exercise video, regular exercise is essential for good looks and good health.
Dr. Marianne Legato, Professor Emerita of Clinical Medicine at Columbia University is an internationally known academic physician, author, lecturer, and specialist in gender-specific medicine. She is founding member of the International Society for Gender Medicine and also the founder and director of The Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University and its next iteration, The Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine. These enterprises are the first collaborations between academic medicine and the private sector focused solely on gender-specific medicine: the science of how normal human biology differs between men and women and of how the diagnosis and treatment of disease differs as a function of gender and sex. Her ground breaking textbook on Gender-and Sex Specific Medicine has been published in 2017 in the 3rd edition.
She has published extensively on Gender and Sex Specific Medicine, both scientifically and for the lay public. She is also the founding editor of the journal Gender Medicine, and the Journal Gender and Genome, published for the scientific community. In 1992, Dr. Legato won the American Heart Association’s Blakeslee Award for the best book written for the lay public on cardiovascular disease. She is a practicing internist in New York City and has been listed each year in New York Magazine’s “Best Doctors” since the feature’s inception in 1993.