What Happens When You Age Without Exercise

Have you ever watched kids play? It’s usually unstructured, all out and fun.

For example, watch a 3 or 4 year old at a playground and they run from one play structure to the next. They don’t walk from the slide to the swing, they run. And it’s not to because they are in competition with someone else. There could be no other kids at the park and they’ll still run.

Puppies are the same way. I’ve started taking our puppy, Poppy, on some hikes and walks. And every now and again she’ll open up into a sprint until she gasses herself and has to stop and rest. Once she recovers she’s off again chasing a butterfly, racing me or for any reason at all.

At some point in life exercise changes. Maybe it’s because we think everything has to be by the rules or it doesn’t count. For example, you can’t just do push ups you need to do 3 sets of 10. And runs need to be a certain time or distance.

Maybe we stop exercising because it doesn’t feel like play. We don’t get to do the fun things we did as kids.

Whatever the reasons for not exercising the consequences of not exercising as we age are very real.

A recent article covered this in more detail. Here’s a brief recap of what happens to your body if you don’t exercise as you age.

  1. Sleep Issues – Do you have an elderly parent? Or maybe you work with elderly people. If so, you’d know it’s not uncommon for them to have poor quality sleep. This can be due to waking up during the night for the bathroom, to not being able to relax or difficulty getting in a comfortable position. Regardless of the reason, it is rare to hear of seniors sleeping right through the night. Compare this with young people and it’s rare to hear of them waking up at all during the night.
  2. High Blood Pressure – Exercise keeps our heart and lungs strong. It ensures that we’re able to move blood to all parts of the body. When we lose fitness, our heart has to work harder to accomplish daily tasks. Combine this with the gradual hardening of blood vessels that accompany poor nutritional choices and a sedentary lifestyle and we can see how our blood pressure will rise with age.
  3. Risk of Heart Disease – This ties in with the previous point but as the heart has to work harder and overcome the hardening of vessels we’re increasing the risk of heart disease.
Prevalence of diagnosed ischemic heart disease (IHD) and occurrence of acute myocardial infarction (AMI) among Canadians aged 20 years and older, by age group and sex, Canada, 2000–2001 to 2012–2013
Notes: The 95% confidence interval shows an estimated range of values which is likely to include the true value 19 times out of 20.
Source: Public Health Agency of Canada, using Canadian Chronic Disease Surveillance System data files contributed by provinces and territories, May 2016.

Looking at the table above we can see the prevalence or occurrence of heart disease by age. There is a very low prevalence or occurrence under 39 years and this gradually increases each decade with the highest risk for those 85+ years of age.

4. Memory Problems – We have some relatives down in Florida. And I remember my dad coming home from having visited them. He was at the Customs and Border desk declaring what he had purchased and acquired abroad. He knew he had brought something but couldn’t remember what. The border agent was being very patient and trying to offer suggestions as to what he may have purchased. In the end he remembered what he bought in Florida. He bought a memory stick for one of his devices.

While we had, and still do have , a good laugh at this memory the truth is that without regular, intense exercise we aren’t bathing the brain in BDNF and risk memory loss with age.

5. Loss of Endurance – You don’t even have to apply this one specifically to seniors. We all notice a loss of capacity as we age.

For example, have you ever seen the Wibit inflatable park in Kelowna during the summer? This is the attraction this has all the floaties you can walk, jump and climb all over. Kids can spend hours playing in there all day. Most adults wouldn’t last an hour. And if they do make it an hour it would be interesting to see how many get injured or are popping Tylenol the next day.

The body wants to maintain homeostasis or balance. When we don’t move, exercise or challenge ourselves physically we lose endurance. Pretty soon shovelling some snow or climbing a flight of stairs can be enough to do us in.

6. Increased Blood Sugar – Exercise is great for keeping the sensitivity of the cells to insulin high. This means it takes less sugar to get the same response compared to if the cells weren’t as sensitive. This has positive effects on reducing diabetes and obesity.

7. Reduced Risk of Some Types of Cancer – Exercise can be effective with reducing the chances of of certain types of cancer including breast, colorectal and uterine. According to the American Cancer Society this is because of the benefits of reduced weight, better hormone balance, lower insulin levels and a stronger immune system.

As we get into our mid to late 50s we see an increase in the prevalence of cancer by age.
Source: Government of Canada
Fact sheet: Cancer in Canada

When we’re young we’re in a state of growth. We are getting stronger and better with age. At a certain point the balance tips and we enter into a stage where decay is greater than growth. Exercise is the best way to stave off the losses that come with age including the seven issues identified above.

What about you?

What physical losses have been most impacting to your quality of life? What have you tried doing recently and noticed it’s not as easy as it once was.

***Quick aside…for me it was running with a couple of our athletes, Kierra and Taylor, this summer. I struggled. Big time. And I hurt for many days after. This shocked me and got my attention. That’s why I’ve vowed to address my running fitness and slow the loss and decay.***

If you’ve tried going for a run lately and were surprised at the outcome…


If you jumped in the pool and were gassed much sooner than expected…


If you had to watch the grand-kids for an afternoon and now are cancelling everything else physical for the rest of the week…

Than we should talk.

It doesn’t have to be this way. And we can help.

Here’s the link for Government of Canada report on chronic diseases

And here’s the link to the article on what we lose without exercise

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