You Can Slow Down the Clock
Research shows that diet and exercise can slow aging

When Leon Pope, 73, plays softball, he goes all out. ''I may not run as fast or hit as far as I used to, but I do my utmost,'' he says. In fact, he's doing just fine: Batting .583, he's a star in the Lubbock (Tex.) Senior Softball League. As you grow older, changes in the musculoskeletal, nervous, and vascular systems lead to a steady decline in strength, reflexes, balance, stamina, and flexibility. But there is much you can do to slow the deterioration so that, like Pope, you won't spend your golden years warming the bench.

''After age 30, things start going downhill physiologically,'' says Dr. James Goodwin, director of the Sealy Center on Aging at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. No matter what you do, you'll lose ground. But luckily, we are born with 10 times the physical capacity we need. ''We have tremendous reserve,'' says Goodwin.

Why, then, do some people become decrepit while others stay vital? Genetics and disease play a role, of course. But recent research indicates that altering your diet and how you exercise as you grow older can make a big difference.

Muscle mass decreases 40% to 50% between the ages of 30 and 80. This reduces strength: Your swimming stroke and running stride will become less powerful. It also slows metabolism, so you will need to eat fewer calories to maintain your weight.

ENDURANCE PAYS. But what you lose over time is compounded dramatically by inactivity. Muscles atrophy from lack of use much faster than from age. Not exercising also accelerates the degradation of cardiovascular function. That's why it's good to do at least 30 minutes of endurance exercise such as brisk walking and cycling at least three times a week. Chores that get your heart pumping--such as mowing, raking, and mopping--also count. But as the years pass, bones lose calcium more rapidly and are more prone to break or fracture. Connective tissue dries out and becomes less pliable, making joints stiff and more easily injured.

To avoid undue strain on older bones and joints, exercise physiologist Ross Anderson at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, advises ''moving away from high-impact activities.'' Instead of running and tennis, he suggests swimming and cross-country skiing. Cross-training, doing a range of activities, will keep you from overstressing the same muscle groups.

Arteries also harden as you grow older, so the heart has to work harder to pump blood through them. The result is that maximum heart rate and oxygen consumption decline about 1% a year. So the same workout will get progressively more difficult. And because of a decline in the number of motor neurons, your muscles won't react as quickly. Hence, you won't want to place any bets on your Ping-Pong game.

Always listen to your body. If an exercise hurts, back off or do another activity that doesn't cause pain or undue fatigue. Also, you can break up your 30-minute workouts. Two 15-minute or three 10-minute sessions will provide the same benefit.

To offset weakness associated with muscle loss, add resistance or weight training to your routine. ''Aerobic exercise alone isn't going to do it,'' says William Evans, director of the Nutrition, Metabolism & Exercise Lab at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Medical Sciences. Senior slugger Pope started lifting weights in his forties when he noticed it was getting harder to put handcuffs on criminals. ''I had to do something, or the crooks were going to get away,'' says the former postal inspector. In the past five years, several studies have found weight training is especially beneficial to older adults. The lean mass you gain will boost your metabolism and improve nerve function so that muscles contract more efficiently.

Evans says older people who do just three sets of eight repetitions three times a week often achieve gains of 200% in strength and 15% in the size of targeted muscles within three months. ''It's pretty dramatic,'' he says. But three times a week is the upper limit. And you should never lift weights on consecutive days. Muscles, particularly older ones, need at least 48 hours to recover and rebuild after a weight-training session. You can use weight machines or hand weights. Rubberized resistance bands that you stretch (available at most sporting good stores for under $5) will work, too.

Strength and resistance training improve balance and flexibility. But experts also recommend daily stretching. Consider yoga and tai chi, too. Recent studies published in the Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation and elsewhere have shown these exercises can prevent falls and increase range of motion even among people in their eighties and nineties. ''These are whole mind-body approaches that have proven themselves by how long they've been practiced in other cultures, as well as in scientific research,'' says University of Georgia Associate Professor Elaine Cress.

As for nourishing your aging body, the best diet is still low fat with plenty of fruits and vegetables, but you would do well to add more protein. ''Older people need more protein because they are not as efficient at using it to build muscle,'' says Evans. The Agriculture Dept.'s recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is about 50 to 60 grams for adults over 50. But a study to be published in The Journal of Gerontology suggests more like 70 to 80 grams a day. (A medium-size chicken breast holds 30 grams).

After age 50, you'll also need to boost your daily intakes of calcium (1,500 milligrams, vs. 1,000 mg), vitamin D (10 micrograms to 15 mcg, vs. 5 mcg), and B12 (2.4 mcg, vs. 2 mcg). An aging body has difficulty processing these nutrients, which are essential for healthy bones and nerve functioning. Following these prescriptions won't turn back the clock. But odds are you'll have a lot better time.


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You Can Slow Down the Clock

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