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Getting physical can sharpen mind, body

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Nov. 17--Retiring? Celebrate by jumping on the nearest treadmill. There's still time to save your body -- and mind -- from the ravages of old age.

More scientific evidence than ever before shows physical exercise is the key not only to a longer, healthier life, but maintaining a sharp mind. But just as the United States is poised for the largest number of retirees ever according to census figures, less than one-third of those over age 50 get any regular exercise.

"This is the do-or-die time for a ton of people," says Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston Medical Center, which studies what factors allow people to live to 100 or more. "The most important thing is losing weight and exercise."

Once, exercise for retirees seemed not only unproductive but downright dangerous for the frail. Today, however, studies are showing that 100-year-olds can still get health benefits from exercise. And with life expectancies hovering around 86 for men and 88 for women, there can be 20 or even 30 years of productive living after retirement.

To make the most of that time, exercise is key. Working out can prevent or delay some diseases, keep down weight, help with balance, and improve the health of the heart and lungs. Federal guidelines used to suggest a half-hour a day of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, but have since been increased to an hour, which can be spread out over the course of the day.

Clearly, this doesn't mean retirees have to train for a marathon. Dr. Kenneth L. Minaker, chief of the Geriatric Medicine Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital notes that even 30 minutes of light physical activity on most days can increase life expectancy.

A study of lifestyles and long-term survival rates of Harvard alumni noted that the oldest age group reduced mortality rates by 50 percent with this amount of exercise, the greatest reduction of any age group. "To quantify the gain for the pain, it means if you exercise an hour a day, you will live two hours longer," says Minaker. This "benefit is usually thought of as unimpressive," he notes, "but the real benefit comes when quality of life is evaluated, with exercisers feeling better than nonexercisers."

While aerobic exercise is important to bring weight down and improve the cardiovascular system, a parallel growing body of knowledge also shows that weight or resistance training is as important. Studies show that even those in their 90s who took up weight training increased muscle mass and strengthened bones, two areas that will help prevent falls and injuries.

That is why Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston recently began a twice weekly "Get Up and Go" community weight training program for elders at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale. A start-up group of 20 people come to lift weights under the watchful eye of Evelyn O'Neill, academic coordinator of exercise programming, and other employees. Some are frail; others have memory loss; but O'Neill says they are all building muscle, hoping to extend their life.

For Page Else, an 83-year-old from Chelsea who attends the program, the weight training makes her feel better. But Else has always been active and still dances regularly with her 80-year-old husband. "I have arthritis, and if I didn't exercise I'd really be bent over," she says.

Else's life of constant activity may have also helped her mind, new research shows. Even for those who claim not to care about getting in shape, exercise is showing to have an effect on one of the most feared conditions of old age: memory loss and dementia. One recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences noted that physically active adults have higher concentration skills.

"I know a lot of people who sit in their rocking chairs after they retired," says Else, as she prepared to go antique shopping with a house guest recently. "You just have to keep going like the Energizer Bunny."


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