Not long ago I was on a panel talking to an audience of accomplished people about the lifestyle habits of those who are aging optimally. One of the expert panelists discussed about the importance of regular exercise to continued physical and cognitive vigor. As he talked about whether time spent working out should be three hours or five hours a week, I noticed that several of the listeners—including one of the panelists who was in a wheelchair—seemed uncomfortable with these remarks.

During the discussion I mentioned that at least half of the optimally aging older adults known to me do not work out regularly and only rarely break a sweat.  Several of the attendees smiled at my comment, but the majority of the audience and several other panelists were clearly puzzled by this remark. Before I could explain my comments our time was up and the audience scattered. Here is what I would have said.

Research around the world confirms that exercise is good for our health and our intellect.  Our interviews, however, with 438 adults ages 55-87 found that over half did not engage in regular exercise or sport and didn’t belong to a fitness center.  Here are three examples.

For Mel (age 78) the church is the center of most of his activities. He is a member of the church bowling team, choir, and is a mentor to a teenagers in the confirmation program.  After Sunday church, he goes with some of the parishioners to Subway for lunch. Tuesday evenings is bowling, and he meets with his teammates for dinner before the matches begin. 

A widower, Gary (75) mows the lawn, tars his garage roof, hangs ceiling fans, and does his own shopping, cooking and cleaning. In his spare time he loves to build a rocking horse, a crib, or other things for his grandchildren

Jane (73) is “busy all day long” and that there are “not enough hours in the day.” She tutors non-English speaking kindergarteners twice a week, belongs to a book club and a regular square dancing group. She feels best in the morning as well as right after her mid-day nap. “I need a little nap,” she said, “if I’m going to be dancing until almost midnight!”

As these cases illustrate, we do not have to work up a sweat in the gym to burn calories. Barbara Ainsworth and her colleagues at the University of South Carolina rated a range of activities—leisure, household and occupational as well as athletic —on the basis of how many METs (or metabolic equivalents) are expended during an action. A MET is defined as the number of kilocalories used per minute by an average person during an activity relative to that individual’s basic metabolic rate. Here’s an idea of how many METs are burned in comparable leisure and athletic activities:  Lying in bed watching TV, 1 MET; walking the dog or playing golf using a cart 3-4METS; yard work or playing doubles tennis, 5-6 METs; shoveling snow or bicycling 12-14 mph, 7-8 METS; sawing wood by hand or running a 10 minute mile, 9-10 METs. 

The “average person in considered to be 154 pounds and between 30 and 50 years of age. Older and heavier people will burn more METS in activities than those thinner and younger.

Studies of older adults in North America and Europe who did not work out regularly but were otherwise active found that high levels of ordinary leisure activity provides nearly the same health benefits as vigorous exercise.

What about cognitive functions? Is there any evidence that ordinary daily activities benefit the mind? Georgia Tech neuroscientists surveyed the activity levels of several hundred older adults and then gave them a battery of aptitude tests. The more active individuals had higher mental ability scores. Highly active Icelandic women and men in their mid-70s were much stronger on tests of processing speed, memory and executive functions than their sedentary contemporaries. Even more interesting was that those elders who spent the most time watching TV had lower mental ability scores.

Longitudinal research, which followed the same people over time, compared activity level with mental ability and produced the same results. Nearly 6,000 thousand older women in four communities were followed for six to eight yearsAt the beginning and end of the study the investigators gave each volunteer a brief mental exam. Then they looked at whether there was a link between how much these women walked and the rate at which their mental ability declined.

At the beginning of the study the participants were asked questions about their physical activities in addition to exercise. The investigators scored each activity on the basis of kilocalories expended and added them together.  Then they divided the weekly sum by the kilocalories required to walk a city block.

Based on the “blocks” walked weekly, the women were divided into four groups from low to high. The magnitude of the differences between these women in the top quarter of the group and the rest was striking. The energy output by the top quarter was enough to walk 175 blocks weekly.  By contrast the energy expended by the 50% in the middle would have covered only 53 blocks while the kilocalories burned by lowest 25% of the subjects would have enabled them to cover but 7 blocks per week. Those women who walked the most number of blocks weekly had a lower incidence of significant cognitive decline compared to those who were the least active.

These large differences between optimal agers and the others are not limited to walking. The most involved women and men from the MacArthur studies of aging spent four times the number of hours in volunteer activities (22) as those in medium (6 hours) and low (5 hours) groups.

Coming back to the audience listening a panel of experts extolling virtues of exercise, it is clear to me that another message also should be conveyed. This is that high levels of non-athletic activity also are beneficial to the aging intellect, a fact that is daily demonstrated in the lifestyles of optimal agers we all know.

Selected References

Jopp, D., & Herzog, C. (2007). Activities, self-referent memory beliefs, and cognitive performance: Evidence for direct and mediated relations. Psychology and Aging, 22, 811-825.

Powell, D. H. (2011. The Aging Intellect. New York: Routledge.

Saczynski, J. S., Jonsdottir, M. K., Sigurdsson, S., Eiriksdottir, G., Jonsson, P. V., Garcia, M. F., Kjartansson, O., van Buchem, M. A., Gudnason, V. & Launer, L. J. (2008). White matter lesions and cognitive performance: The role of cognitively complex leisure activity. Journal of Gerontology: MEDICAL SCIENCES, 63, 848–854).

Yaffe, K., Barnes, D., Nevitt, M., Lui, L-Y, & Covinsky, K. (2001). A prospective study of physical activity and cognitive decline in elderly women: Women who walk. Archives of Internal Medicine, 161, 1703-1708

About the Author

Douglas Hyde Powell, Ed.D., ABPP

Douglas Hyde Powell, Ed.D., A.B.P.P., is a Clinical Instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, and a Consultant in Psychology at McLean Hospital.

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