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Physical Activity: One Size Fits All?

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By Michèle Sirois, participating contributor to the AvantÂge programme of the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal


Aging has an impact on us all.

Some people age at a faster rate than others. Other people age at a normal rate. And some lucky people—super-agers—age at a much slower rate than others.

Kinesiologist Mylène Aubertin-Leheudre* presented the results of her most recent research on May 3 at the Le Groupe Maurice Auditorium of the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal. These suggest that physical activity plays a crucial role in preventing premature aging.

The specialist first reminded us that the loss of mobility is an important factor that makes aging a challenge for many. Having difficulty moving around can make it hard to perform many daily activities such as shopping, cooking, and washing. It is more than likely that quality of life will be affected if it becomes impossible to carry out these tasks.


Avoiding falls

Ms. Aubertin-Leheudre made it clear that the best strategy to remain mobile and independent is to maintain muscle quality in order to avoid falls. Indeed, falls are the leading cause of dependency in older people. This is what we need to avoid! But how?

A full chapter is devoted to maintaining balance and avoiding falls in the book Vieillir en santé : c’est possible ! Among other topics, balance, environment management, flexibility, and strength are discussed.

Ms. Aubertin-Leheudre, who specializes in the impact of physical activity on the aging body, stressed the importance of maintaining, in addition to balance, good muscle mass and strength. She explained that after age 50, muscle mass declines by about 1 to 2% per year while strength decreases faster (3% per year). Having healthy muscles plays such a critical role in the aging process that researchers have established a link between the speed at which people walk and the risk of losing mobility: a walking speed of less than 0.8 metres (about 2½ feet) per second translates into a significant risk for loss of mobility within three years.


The best exercises to maintain healthy muscles

The members of the audience were eager to learn about the specific activities that can help maintain healthy muscles. They were surprised to hear that after age 65, these physical activities were exactly the same as those recommended to maintain good cognitive health. (See Comment l’exercice physique influence-t-il notre santé cérébrale ?)

These are:

  • Aerobic exercises such as walking, cycling, and swimming.
  • Muscular strength exercises such as weight training.


The way to maintain or improve muscle mass and strength seemed very simple until the specialist revealed a few surprising details.

The same exercise will not have the same effect on everyone depending on variables such as sex or body fat percentage.

For instance, high intensity aerobic exercises are rather sexist! Although they will improve the cardiorespiratory health and walking speed of both men and women, only men will see a decrease in body fat percentage. However, because nature does things right, endurance training will improve muscle strength in women, but not in men.

Likewise, weight training has very different effects in overweight people depending on their muscular strength. Those with good muscular strength will see their body fat decrease, but will not gain any strength. However, those with little muscle strength will not lose fat, but will improve their strength.

It might be wise to seek advice from a kinesiologist according to the desired objective (improve muscle strength, cardiorespiratory health, or weight loss).

In the end, the researcher made it really simple by encouraging everyone to seize every opportunity to move. This can only help maintain or improve health as well as the quality of life in old age.



* Lecture by Mylène Aubertin-Leheudre, Ph.D., gerontologist & kinesiologist; Département des Sciences de l’activité physique, Faculté des Sciences, UQAM; Researcher at the Centre de recherche de l’Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal (CRIUGM), Université de Montréal.

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