By Nathan Edwards, M.Sc.PT
My parents raised me to respect my elders and to appreciate and embrace their wealth of knowledge and experience. So, when I have senior citizens come into my office and define their injuries, their soreness, and their inactivity as “just part of getting old” I always revert back to my parent’s childhood advice and say, “you’re right, but…” In this weeks column I’d like to explain that “but” and get you comfortable with the fact that you DO have a say when it comes to joint pain, activity, fitness, and health as you age gracefully into your senior years.
There’s no doubt that with increased age we see a higher incidence of certain ailments, most commonly we think of arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. We certainly know that arthritis can mean joint pain with certain movements. We absolutely know that osteoporosis results in inherently weaker bones and can lead to higher risk of fracture. We are all familiar with examples whereby new stints of high intensity exercise have been a factor in cardiac events or heart attacks. With all of that stated it certainly stands to reason that a logical, albeit more traditional mindset might peg any of the aforementioned conditions as reasons to avoid activity as we age. Unfortunately, it’s my job to tell you that it’s actually in your best interest to defy the common wisdom and get busy moving and sweating as you age.
The first and foremost, as it pertains to physiotherapy and aging, has to be arthritis. There’s seldom an appointment in my office when that word isn’t mentioned, discussed, or given blame for pain and injury. Arthritis, defined loosely as joint inflammation, becomes far more prevalent as we age. As prevalent as it may be in senior citizens, the treatment methods and practices do not vary a great deal based on age alone; with movement being a major part of the answer for all ages. The science shows that movement in some capacity is crucial for joint health and mobility and can yield a reduction in pain and sensitivity. However, the exercise has to be appropriately suited and graded to the specific area of inflammation. Some arthritic joints may respond well to non-weight bearing activities like swimming or cycling, where as arthritic backs may respond well to brisk walking. Ultimately, the science says arthritis and movement must go hand in hand to maximize mobility and health, it’s just a matter of finding the right exercise, which sometimes takes a little bit of help and guidance from a healthcare provider.
The next major ailment when it comes to aging and mobility is osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is increasingly prevalent as we age, especially in women, and essentially translates into normal terms as porous bones; porous meaning lower in density and therefore weaker and more vulnerable to fracture. Our bodies, when healthy, are constantly remodelling our bones with steady loss and gain of tissue. Simply put, with osteoporosis our bodies are not replacing enough the bone tissue fast enough to keep up with the rate of loss, so we lose bones mass. A major factor for bone health is that our bones require weight-bearing activity, loading and stress in order to effectively maintain an adequate rate of loss and gain equal; our bones grow under compression and weaken when not used! Bone loading can happen with a number of activities, including walking, but we must minimize the risks for falls. Simple factors must be considered to minimize risks, like walking on even ground in a predictable environment and using a walker or a cane depending on your current level of mobility. Do not hesitate to contact a healthcare provider to evaluate your risks and determine an appropriate activity.
The last note for healthy aging comes back to some of our key chronic conditions, like heart disease and diabetes which both increase in prevalence with age. There is ample evidence out there to support that these conditions are absolutely impacted, mitigated, and managed by healthy levels of physical activity, but it must be with a wise and gradual progression to minimize your risks.
Ultimately, we are all aging and we will all continue to age, but when it comes to many aspects of your health YOU are in the drivers seat. There are exercise options out there for all of your needs that can truly stand to improve your pain, your health and your overall wellbeing. So, next time an ache stops you from getting out and doing something don’t sit back, accept it, and play the age card; old or young there are ways to get moving towards improvement! For more info on aging and wellness visit www.wellnessnb.ca/seniors for a host of great resources on getting active or speak to a health professional.