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The importance of exercise for the elderly

Jack Faust, a 101-year-old Navy veteran of World War II, is making headlines by competing in the 26th National Veterans Golden Age Games, a sports and recreation competition for former soldiers over the age of 55. Faust, who has won numerous gold and silver medals in previous competitions, plans to tackle such events as bowling, shuffleboard, air rifle and checkers – all of which he’ll undertake in a wheelchair.

While Faust’s story may seem farfetched for some, an expert says it highlights the importance of the geriatric population to stay physically active.  Dr. Gisele Wolf-Klein, the director of geriatric education at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, NY, maintains that competing in fitness activities and continuing exercise routines is one of the best things an elderly individual can do for his or her health.

“What exercise does is help people continue to build and maintain muscle mass,” Wolf-Klein told FoxNews.com.  “Muscles, like any other organ, can atrophy if not used.  For example, we know about the adverse effects of people sitting in front of the television for long periods of time.  There’s very good evidence that at any age if you embark on a good exercise program, you can maintain and rebuild muscle mass.

Wolf-Klein says that just because you get older, it doesn’t mean you can’t continue playing the same sports or doing the same exercises that you did when you were younger.

“We have a growing number of elderly who are just continuing the activities they were doing at the age of 30, 40 or 50,” Wolf-Klein said.  “There is a group of marathon runners out in California achieving times that are equivalent to what a good athlete in their 20s or 30s would be doing.  There’s no reason to assume that age alone would curtail activity.”

However, it’s important that before an elderly individual begins a new sport or exercise, he or she should speak with a medical professional.

“Like everything else, moderation is key,” Wolf-Klein said.  “Particularly in the older age groups, if you’re starting an exercise program, it’s a good idea to see your doctor and mention you plan to start a new activity so that there’s no contradiction.  For example, you don’t want to do jarring activity that could affect your joints.  If you’re going to take golf the first time, good for you to do it under care of professional so you don’t harm your back.”

If members of the geriatric population are able to incorporate daily exercise routines into their lifestyle, many studies have revealed such choices to have numerous benefits to not only their physical health, but their social health as well.

“Exercise, coupled with maintaining a healthy BMI, is associated with a lesser risk of cardiovascular problems, decreasing the possibility of cancer – colon cancer and breast cancer, specifically – by reducing obesity, and helping to decrease the risk of developing diabetes,” Wolf-Klein said.  “And really, it helps to increase overall energy.”

“Also, most of our exercise activities are done in groups or with friends, which has the added benefit of socialization,” Wolf-Klein continued.  “Loneliness is a major problem of the geriatric population.  Joining an exercise club with friends is a very good way to maintain yourself in a community.”

When it comes to Faust’s story, Wolf-Klein hopes that others will follow his example.  

“I think he’s going to be an inspiration for many of our older adults,” Wolf-Klein said.  “Many of our patients are in their 80s and 90s, and these people want to remain functional and independent at all costs.  This veteran who is tackling this activity, he can be an encouragement for older adults that they can do it too.  They just need to be active and seek some guidance if they’re unsure as to how far they should go.”