Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Team Marche.

If you want to increase your “health span” as well as your lifespan, you need to take simple daily actions involving physical activity, nutrition and social connection. That was the message from experts at the International Federation on Ageing’s (IFA) 14th global conference, Towards a Decade of Healthy Ageing – From Evidence to Action, held in Toronto this August. This summer, a panel discussion, Associations Between Physical Activity and Healthy Ageing, offered some strategies.

“If we’re expecting a slow and depressing decline, that has a real affect on our health. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Focus on enjoying life
Although exercise was the focus of the session, several presenters touched on other aspects of healthy aging. For example, psychotherapist Nicole Christina, the Syracuse, NY-based producer of the Zestful Aging podcast, talked about attitude, social interaction and healthy eating as well as exercise.

Christina, who interviews thought leaders on healthy aging, advocates “balance and pleasure” rather than a focus on “eating clean.” When it comes to food, “there’s so much to worry about,” she said. “There’s gluten, fat, carbs, GMOs, antioxidants, organics, probiotics… Are my vegetables seasonal? Microbio friendly? Were they picked by fair trade workers [and] under what conditions? Do they have a carbon footprint?” In her view, “if you are going to be so stressed about [whether] your kale is clean and organic, you might [as well] just have a sandwich.”

Christina also applies this philosophy to physical activity. “Exercise is not supposed to be a punishment for eating…. It shouldn’t feel like a chore because our bodies are made to move. They enjoy moving and we feel better when we move.”

As well, she asked audience members to look at their attitudes about aging. “If we’re expecting a slow and depressing decline, that has a real affect on our health. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said, adding that research shows that people with a positive attitude live seven and a half years longer. In addition, she stressed the need for social connection because “being alone is not only uncomfortable, it’s lethal.” Instead, she advises us “to find our tribe where we feel we feel a sense of belonging.”

Nurturing close connections with others is critical in healthy aging. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Jeremy Bronson.

Find the doctor within
Christina wasn’t the only presenter to broach the importance of social connection to older adults. Hui-Chuan Hsu, a researcher in gerontology, told the audience that saying hello to five persons and chatting for at least five minute each day was part of the homework for participants in Taiwan’s Integrated Self-healing Enhancement Program(SEP).

In addition to promoting social connection, the health promotion program for older adults focuses on exercise and nutrition education and asks participants to draw on their natural healing power. “You can empower yourself, you can make yourself stronger, you can make yourself happier,” Hsu said, noting that program participants show increased muscle strength, reduced blood pressure and increased walking speed.

Tapping into your own healing power brings a greater sense of happiness and strength. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Gracie and Viv.

Stimulate brain and body
The session also featured another health promotion program, Healthy Ageing Promotion Program for You (HAPPY), geared to vulnerable seniors. We wanted to build cognitive reserve and delay frailty in residents who are “slipping down the ladder,” said associate professor Reshma Merchant, division head of geriatric medicine at National University Hospital in Singapore.

The program was developed after a study conducted by Merchant showed more than a third of older adults in Bukit Panjang in western Singapore were on the verge of becoming frail, putting them at higher risk for developing disability.

HAPPY features dual-task exercises to train participants physically and mentally. For example, participants may be asked to memorize cards and then tap different body parts while marching on the spot. Early results show that HAPPY participants experience less depression and anxiety and improved physical function and cognition.

Tai chi can help with balance and prevent falls. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Derek Barrett.

Dance and move
There’s also evidence that dancing improves cognition, according to Dr. Sandra Hirst,  an associate professor in nursing at the  University of Calgary, who performed a broad review of creative aging through dance/movement approaches. This project was sparked after witnessing the dramatic improvement in memory and conversational ability of an 84-year-old, long-term care resident after dancing with his wife.

Dr. Hirst also pointed out that the review showed that movement activities like tai chi reduce falls and increase mobility, flexibility and balance. “When you think about walking up and down stairs, when you’re thinking about getting out of the bathtub, when you think about walking through a side gate, changes in balance become extremely important,” she explained.

The fifth presenter was Christina Bosch-Farré, who discussed preliminary findings from the Survey of Healthy, Aging and Retirement in Europe(SHARE), which studied more than 50,000 older adults. She noted that low educational level, lack of employment and low income were associated with an inactive and unhealthy lifestyle.

Speaking of unhealthy lifestyles, Hui-Chuan Hsu pointed out that between 50 to 75 percent of chronic disease is a result of our way of living. “We increase our lifespan, but our healthy span doesn’t increase that much,” she said.

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Katherine O'Brien
Katherine O'Brien is a freelance content writer and editor from Toronto who specializes in seniors' health, senior care and aging. Using her own caregiving experience as a starting point, Katherine aims to educate and inform older adults and their families about ways to make the aging process as smooth and enjoyable as possible. She's covered a wide range of topics including dementia, seniors' nutrition, advance care planning and emotional wellness.