Despite millions of dollars spent each year selling products and services that promise to slow the aging process, whether it's the latest skin cream, plastic surgery or nutritional supplements, we know there is no absolute fountain of youth. However, a study published in the journal Neurology has generated new evidence on the connection between exercise and slowing the aging process.
The study worked with 6,000 aging adults and used DNA samples to measure the length of telomeres in active participants. Telomeres are protein caps that protect chromosomes in the body. Telomeres shrink with age and those with shorter telomeres contract diseases and die sooner than others. The research shows that older adults who exercise regularly can slow biological aging by as much as 10 years and increase brain mass which helps with cognitive ability.
So science has verified what fitness buffs have suspected all along. And with older adults, the type of exercise may be key in reversing age-related maladies such as back pain, loss of balance or stiffness. Generally doctors will recommend low-impact exercise that reduces stress on joints and bones while strengthening muscle mass and increasing bone density. Some of the best forms of low-impact exercise are swimming, cycling, walking, yoga and Pilates.
Often senior citizens are stooped over from osteoporosis to the extent that they are unable to stand up and see straight ahead. Many adults begin to form a dowager's hump on the upper back as early as in the late 60s or 70s. Yoga and Pilates have a few of the same movements and are both excellent ways to head off stooped posture. Both provide tremendous benefits for conditioning as we age and emphasize strengthening the core muscles.
A case that went viral on social media last year highlighted a dramatic reversal for then-85-year-old Anna Pesce (pictured as before and after). Pesce was severely hunched over and suffered from back pain. A tipping point was falling forward while visiting her family in South Carolina. She sought out a yoga instructor and worked intensely for a year to correct her posture. A year later, she was standing straight again. Now she practices yoga daily and has a new lease on life.
If that's not enough to send you running to a yoga studio, consider 105-year-old Eileen Ash from Norwich, England. Ash attributes her longevity to healthy eating, a regular yoga practice and drinking two glasses of wine every day.
Yoga and Pilates have long been acknowledged for building core body strength. Joseph Pilates himself suffered from rickets and other illnesses before developing his technique for fitness and seeing his own dramatic physical transformation as a result. He considered the core muscle group to be the powerhouse of the human body.
According to Mark Stephens, author of several tomes focused on teaching yoga, the practice is important for improving balance for seniors. He dedicates an entire chapter of Yoga Sequencing: Designing Transformative Yoga Classes to working with aging yogis.
The core muscle group is roughly located from the bottom of the rib cage to an imaginary line across the hip joints on the front of the body and to the base of the buttocks in the back. Four layers of core muscles involve the transverse abdominis on the sides, the rectus abdominis muscles and the external and internal oblique muscles -- the latter being the area where the infamous "love handles" can be found. The most prominent core muscle is the rectus abdominis, which tends to try to do all the work in yoga or Pilates. Turning on the deeper layers of the core muscles is a goal in either practice.
"Basically, you are only as strong as your core. But the biggie is that, as we age, we have more trouble balancing. It's core strength that supports better balance," says Susan Mondi, an 18-year yoga practitioner and owner of Thrive Yoga in Rockville, MD. "I always know when I recover quickly and prevent myself from falling, that it's due to yoga."
A strong core is important as we age since it provides a center of gravity and keeps the body balanced and stable. In her Inferno Hot Pilates teacher training program, Gabriella Walters refers to it as the "internal corset." The core is what can help us right ourselves and prevent a fall that can break bones that take longer to heal as we age.
"Muscles do not know their age," says 64-year-old Pilates instructor Christelle McDonald of Bethesda, MD. McDonald has been teaching Pilates for 15 years and has students in her classes in their late 80s and 90s who keep up with the rest of the class easily. She provides variations for those who need them in the movements as she teaches. She notes that joints, ligaments and tendons age but the eccentric contraction of the core muscles strengthens and supports the back. "The beauty of Pilates is that it teaches both ends of the spectrum," says McDonald. "It's for every age and that's what you see in a typical class."
Some of the foundation poses used in both yoga and Pilates are the plank, the bow pose, camel, side twists and the locust pose. One essential difference between the two practices is that Pilates incorporates series of repetitions in a one-hour workout session. Both practices focus on breathing, concentration and controlled movement of the body. But yoga asanas or poses are held for several breaths and the practice is gentler and more focused on meditation than Pilates.
Used in tandem, the two practices can complement one another and improve overall muscle strength, flexibility, posture, and balance.
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