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Exercise, Fitness, Health, and the Old People

If just a few weeks without physical exertion can undermine fitness temporarily, decades of the no-sweat, effort-free, push-bottom American lifestyle can do far worse. Thanks to medical advances, today�s generation is the first civilization in history to be spared the infectious diseases that once killed millions in their prime.

People nowadays live 23 years longer than Americans did at turn of the century. But they do not survive simply to die of natural causes; all too often, they self-destruct.

The killers and cripplers of their society are the degenerative diseases, such as heart attacks, hypertension, strokes, respiratory problems, arthritis, and connective tissue disorders. People rust out long before they wear out, largely because they fail to put their bodies to proper use.

In the past 50 to 75 years, physical activity has become the exception rather than the rule for fitness, both at home and on the job. People drive where others once walked. They flick a switch and machines do their hauling, lifting, pushing, and pulling for them.

On weekends, most people get their exercise vicariously by watching professional athletes on television. What people do�and overdo�is as harmful as what they do not do.

People eat too much, drink too much, and smoke too much, and people ignore a disturbing fact of life: that they do what they do and do not doing it every day affects how long and how well they will live.

In a now-classic study of the impact of daily habits on fitness and health, California researchers surveyed almost seven thousand persons about their smoking, drinking, hours of sleep, breakfast eating, meal regularity, weight, and physical activity.

Men who had good habits in six or seven of these areas lived eleven years longer than those with fewer than four; the difference in life expectancy for women with and without good habits was seven years.

Of all healthful habits, exercise can be the most important. People are meant to be vigorous. The �unexercised body,?even if free from the symptoms of illness, is not at its full potential�not in state of positive well-being.

This state of mind and body meets the same definition that the President�s Council on Physical Fitness uses to define optimum health: �a reflection of your ability to work with vigorous pleasure, without undue fatigue, with energy left for enjoying hobbies and recreational activities and for meeting unseen emergencies.?They say that this relates to how people feel mentally as well as physically.

The quest for fitness and health has pulled more than 17 million Americans out of their armchairs and into running shoes. The fitness council describes the current trend as �the first peacetime exercise boom in history and the first ever to include women and older people.

In one recent marathon in New York City, 423 runners were between the ages of 50 and 60; 41 competitors were over 60. In almost every marathon or endurance race, the oldest runners are likely to get as many headlines as the fastest ones.

This confirmed the expert�s findings that men and women over 50 are just as capable of exercise and derive just as much benefit from it as the young and middle-aged.

For older men and women, exercise has an extra payoff ?it slows, stops, and even reverses some of the deterioration associated with aging. Older people who become and remain active may not be reborn, but they certainly are rejuvenated. Exercise lops years off their chronological ages.

How does exercise do this? It increases the strength, efficiency, and endurance of the muscles of the heart, easing its workload. It appears to slow the stiffening of the blood vessels, and some think it may build up networks of small blood vessels through the heart and body to transport oxygen more efficiently.

All of these things are boiled down to the fact that fitness and health can never be achieved even by older people if they do not incorporate a good exercise program in their routine.

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