AGE BRILLANTLY shouts the title on the October issue of Oprah magazine….good, I like that.  But it’s sub heading is Everything you always wanted to know but were too tired, forgetful and cranky to ask. Are you kidding me?!?  This from a magazine forging a wholistic identity, determined to provide tools to help you live your best life.   The article 90 is Not the New 50 assures us that Young at Heart will only get us so far and chronicles the authors experience helping her 90 year old mother adjust to a life of dependency after a fall. It strongly reinforces the misconception that if you live long enough you will become dependent..period..it’s unavoidable.   BUT WAIT…research clearly proves that physical frailty is preventable AND reversible with progressive resistance strength training, at any age!  Maria Fiatarone–the New England Journal of Medicine, June 1994 (yes, 1994) reported that 100 nursing home residents aged 72-98 increased strength by 113% in 10 weeks.  This type of research has been duplicated many times since.

In 90 Is Not the New 50, the authors mother had been using the walls and furniture to help get around yet the warning signs of functional deficiency were ignored, no doubt attributed to "old age". A lump in her breast or chest pain would have brought evaluation, diagnosis and intervention. Strength, balance and mobility training could change the story but change won’t come until everyone RETRAINS their mindset.  This outcome was so expected, by the doctors,the daughter, the mother that no-one believes in a different possible outcome. No-one is even looking for solutions except to, adjust to the new normal. Ageism strikes again, with pretty tragic consequences.

Just because something is usual and predictable doesn’t make it normal.  The normal loss of physical function attributable to biological aging is VERY SMALL.  Dramatic losses in physical capacity commonly associated with aging result primarily from lifestyle issues and in my opinion, belief systems. Check out the 100 year old water skier and other high functioning adults in the National Geographic magazine, November 05.  Consider the thousands of people in their 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and even 100’s competing in Senior Olympics.  These people are not freaks of nature but have chosen to reject the concept that age equals unavoidable decline physically and mentally until dependence and death. They make choices based on a new assumption….that they can live fully and vitally throughout their full lifespan.    Change your mind, change your life!!

If you’re a 40+ individual who works hard to stay in shape and can’t understand why your parent, grandparent or friend absolutely rejects exercise….consider this.  Powerful unseen barriers exist to physical activity for many adults over 65. Cultural norms in the 1940’s-60’s discouraged girls and women from engaging in recreational exercise. School policies required dresses (unsuited to active play), recognized very few “appropriate” sports for women and failed to fund female teams; effectively relegating girls to a passive role watching boys play. 

Exercise was considered unladylike at best and harmful at worst (to the “weaker” sex) and many women were counseled by physicians to avoid hard physical exertion for fear of injury. I’m only 49 but remember my mom telling me not to exercise so hard or I could hurt my “female organs”.  At 11 years old I wasn’t sure what that meant but it didn’t sound good. I played sports anyway but when picking myself up off the field after a particularly hard hit glanced around to make sure nothing fell out!

Perception of exercise as potentially harmful to anyone “delicate” is pervasive even for people who personally believe in the benefits of exercise. I once taught a low-impact aerobics class when I was nine months pregnant.  Participants aged 65-75 had been in the “Young at Heart” exercise program for at least 10 years and were personally committed to physical activity.  However, they were visibly upset, convinced I was going to have the baby right there or injure myself if I didn’t stop exercising.  This was a significant revelation to me because it translated to “exercise is great for you unless you are in delicate condition, then it could be harmful.”  This belief is a significant barrier for individuals who have diminished physical function or those living with chronic conditions.  Motivation to increase physical activity requires a belief it is both desirable and doable in light of health status.

            Men aged 65+ can have their own negative associations related to physical activity.  After a certain age physical activity just for fun was considered a frivolous use of time. “A man with so much time and energy should be doing something productive”, was the prevailing attitude. Many older men also relate fitness to the tough, grueling and painful exercise they did in military boot camp, concluding they don’t want any part of it, can’t be successful, and/or anything less really couldn’t do much good anyway.

The Industrial Revolution with its focus on removing the burden of physical exertion from daily life contributed its own barriers.  New automation was sought after but expensive, forging a strong link between financial success and reduced physical activity.  This generation started with a push lawnmower, graduated to a power mower, then to a riding lawnmower, and when they had really "made it" financially, hired someone else to do all that work.

When filtered through gender and generational bias, the message of physical activity as a positive aspiration is a pretty hard sell to many adults. 

The Mass Media portrays fitness as exclusive to the “body beautiful” set even though only about 2% of the population could look that way no matter what they ate or how much they exercised.  This unrealistic ideal is therefore personally irrelevant to 98% of the population, placing fitness out of reach of the average individual, regardless of age.   This preoccupation with perfect bodies and youthful images is especially demeaning to older adults.  It creates negative associations with age-related changes and aggressively promotes a belief that these changes are highly undesirable. A multi-billion dollar industry is built upon the message that we must do whatever we can to defy "aging".

Our cultural image of aging is dominated by caricatures, leaving mature adults both seriously underrepresented and marginalized by the media. (Krueger, 2001) One extreme is characterized by frailty and dependence, spawning endless jokes about aging and commercials and sitcoms portraying older adults as non-vigorous, sexless, confused and a collective drag on social programs and the economy.  The other extreme showcases “woofies” (well-off-older-folks) as slender, healthy, financially secure and at leisure in some fabulous resort community. These extremes dominate the media and our perceptions even though it is clear the majority of older adults exist in a broad range between the extremes. 

Negative stereotypes and limited views of “successful aging” can have a significant impact on self-esteem, body image, and self-efficacy of older adults. (Bradley & Longino, 2001) Evidence has long suggested that beliefs, assumptions and expectations can contribute to sickness and death, as well as to healing. Now research documents that the mind’s perception of health status or a health incident can determine physical symptoms, health choices and behaviors, and ultimately outcomes. (Ray, 2004) 

Media images are so damaging because perceptions of self and perceptions of how you are viewed by others, significantly impacts motivation to make changes. Relentless negative messages about aging can prevent people from believing in their ability to affect change, ultimately contributing to unhealthy lifestyle choices and premature disability.  If a person honestly believes that functional decline with aging is unavoidable why would they exercise if they don’t enjoy it or make any other lifestyle changes? What do you think?