The Evidence on Active Living and Optimal Aging

The McMaster Health Forum, with support from the Labarge Optimal Aging Initiative, recently hosted a public talk to examine the latest evidence on the benefits of, and simple strategies to form lasting habits for healthy, active aging.

Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod (creator’s of the popular fitness program BodyBreak) and Stuart Phillips (Professor, Department of Kinesiology; Associate Member (Graduate Faculty), Medicine, McMaster University) delivered an engaging talk, reinforcing the message that physical activity at all ages is essential to healthy aging.

Watch the video or read the summary below:

Click here for information on upcoming talks (and live-webcasts) on optimal aging issues.

“There’s no doubt that we’re going to age. But what’s really exciting is the fact that there’s more research, education and studies being done than ever before. We have more opportunities to embrace the process rather than have this fear of what’s coming next,” said Joanne McLeod.

Optimal aging
“Just naturally, we’re going to lose muscle mass and bone density as we grow older, but there is something that we can do. Resistance exercises (wall sits, squats, push up, etc.) can contribute to allowing your bodies to be as strong as possible so that you’re ready for anything that you want to do,” suggests Joanne McLeod.

“By keeping your muscles as strong as possible, you’re giving yourself that suit of armour so that chances are you’re not going to get hurt. If you do get hurt, it won’t be as severe and your recovery will be a lot quicker.

We can’t eliminate the aging process – that’s going to be a real magic pill – but we can slow it down so that we give ourselves the best opportunity to feel as good as we want to and keep being as independent as possible,” said McLeod.

Top causes of mortality in Canada
The two main leading causes of death for Canadians are cancer and heart disease. These are followed by accidents, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, diabetes, suicide, influenza and pneumonia, Alzheimer’s, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.

“It’s not just about mortality, it’s about the quality of life that you have when you have these diseases. And improving the quality of life that you have if you don’t have them. Or if you do have them, how do you deal with a poorer quality of life,” said Stuart Phillips.

The cost of inactivity
The economic burden of physical inactivity in Canada was estimated to be about $2.1 billion in 1999, or 2.5% of the total direct health care costs in Canada. Further, an estimated 21,000 lives were lost prematurely in 1995 because of inactivity.

The most effective health behavior ever
What if there were a treatment that would lower the risk for all known chronic diseases? It would work regardless of your age, sex, race or your current risk. It’s already had a large evidence base on which to base recommendations and could save the healthcare system billions of dollars and cost comparatively nothing in return. At the same time, the side-effect profile includes a better prognosis for a variety of unrelated ailments including, depression, dementia and even suicide incidence.

It’s exercise – being physically active.

Ron Davis, former President of the AMA, said “If we had a pill that contained all [some] of the benefits of exercise, it would be the most widely prescribed drug in the world.”

Stuart Phillips further stated that the scientist who developed that pill would “win the Nobel prize ten-times over. That pill will be heralded, in my opinion, as a medical breakthrough that would trump even immunization as the savings in terms of mortality.”

“If there were a 10% reduction in the prevalence of physical inactivity, it would reduce annual health care spending by $150 million. These are small numbers with respect to how much we actually spend on healthcare, but they’re modifiable. It’s all about how you decide to take care of yourself,” said Phillips.

Decreasing inactivity vs. increasing activity
One of the things that we’re told is that sitting around is a bad thing. Alleviating sitting around is important, but being active is the true trump card. The more you sit around, you have an increased risk – all cause – for cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

“Sit down less and do a little bit more to alleviate your risk for mortality and the incidence for just about any chronic disease,” advised Phillips. “Whether you’re normal weight, overweight or obese, the fitter you are, your risk for mortality if much lower. And that’s all the other risk factors taken into account. That’s a pretty powerful message. That’s the science behind the recommendation.”

Physical activity is associated with a reduced risk for cancer
Recent studies and systematic reviews show that physical activity is associated with a:

  • 20% lower risk for ovarian cancer
  • 10-20% lower risk for esophogeal cancer
  • 30% lower risk for breast cancer
  • 30-50% lower risk of death and recurrence in breast cancer survivors
  • 5-10% lower risk for prostate cancer

What are the benefits of staying active towards Arthritis?
Within the limits of what people with osteo- or rheumatoid arthritis can manage, all of the studies have demonstrated a benefit from exercise.

“There’s no situation that I can think of where either the pain symptoms don’t go down or the increase in function that you gain as a result of being physically active doesn’t then allow you to do more,” said Stuart Phillips.

A Labarge-sponsored initiative with Dr. Monica Maly from McMaster’s School of Rehabilitation Sciences is looking at people with knee osteo-arthritis and the use of Yoga as an intervention. Yoga is not quite as intense as some forms of activity, but it has a tremendously beneficial effect on the participants.

“Exercise, I think, is a must. What you do has to vary according to how you feel,” said Joanne McLeod. “On the good days I’m going to do it, and on the bad days I’m going to pull back a bit.” 

The ‘Future You’
“It’s up to each and everyone of us to take control. If we don’t have control, we’re not hopping on and going for a crazy ride of life, we’re actually taking a back seat and allowing other factors to play a role in what our life is going to be,” said McLeod

“Regardless of what age you are, think about what you’re going to be 20 years from now. The closer that you can imagine that person, the better you’re going to take care of yourself today,” said Hal Johnson.

You can make a change at any time to feel better and embrace what’s coming ahead.

“Life is ahead of you if you make it that way. You want to have an experience all the time,” said Johnson.

Sleep and aging
Our willpower gets depleted with stress and lack of sleep, making it harder to maintain healthy habits.

“When you don’t get your sleep, the first thing that get’s affected is your attitude. We know that attitude is everything,” said McLeod.

“If you are on medication and you are having trouble sleeping, maybe your doctor can recommend a different time of day to take it,” suggested McLeod.

Environment also plays a huge role in getting a good night’s sleep. Ensuring that your bedroom is dark, with as low of a noise level as possible will help create an environment conducive to sleep.

Technology for setting healthy habits
Speaking about wearable technologies, such as fitness trackers, Hal Johnson said “Technology today is incredible in what it’s done. It can help to create habits.”

These fitness trackers or calorie counters can be important companions to your motivation, but not a replacement for it.

“When you have your health and your attitude, you have everything,” said Johnson. 

“Sit down less and do a little bit more to alleviate your risk for mortality and the incidence for just about any chronic disease,” said Phillips.

“To eliminate a lot of our risk factors, and to stay as healthy as possible, it is about being active, eating healthy, getting our sleep and our attitude about life in general,” said McLeod.

For more information about healthy aging that you can trust, visit the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal.

Hal and JoanneStuart Phillips