- A new study suggests that only high levels of physical activity over age 50 are protective against musculoskeletal pain.
- Although all movement is beneficial, intensifying workouts as you age can provide more advantages like higher bone density and mobility.
- For those who do not have a workout routine, previous research indicates it is never too late to start.
With aging comes a higher pain risk, especially chronic musculoskeletal pain that affects joints and muscles. One way to increase prevention efforts is by stepping up your level of exercise, according to a new study in the journal PLoS ONE. Here’s what you need to know about increasing exercise intensity as you age.
About the Study
Researchers looked at more than 5,800 people over age 50 who were part of a large, long-term study on aging in England. Participants provided information on their physical activity levels, as well as whether they were bothered by any type of chronic pain over a 10-year period, with about half reporting this type of issue in that timeframe.
The activity was classified into four categories. These categories included:
- Sedentary, or no activity
- Mild, such as housework
- Moderate, like walking, stretching, and gardening
- Vigorous, such as running, biking, swimming, and playing tennis
Only the highest level of physical activity was associated with a reduced risk of musculoskeletal pain compared to a sedentary lifestyle, which brought the highest probability of chronic pain.
Nils Niederstrasser, PhD
— Nils Niederstrasser, PhD
“It’s well known that pain tends to be more common as we age, but the solution has proved elusive,” says lead author Nils Niederstrasser, PhD, senior lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Portsmouth, U.K., where his research focuses on pain, injury, rehabilitation, and frailty. “With these results, we can see that preventing and alleviating pain might come from incorporating regular physical activity, and making sure at least some of it is vigorous.”
Consistency Is Key
Another important finding, Dr. Niederstrasser adds, is that doing vigorous activity sporadically was also not helpful for pain reduction. Those in the study who did this type of exercise at least once a week—and ideally a few times weekly—were the least likely to report musculoskeletal pain within the 10-year study time period. This was true even when factors like age, weight, and gender were considered.
The strong connection between high physical activity and reduced pain incidence could be related to several variables, Dr. Niederstrasser says. For instance, high physical activity may improve health, impact weight gain, and lead to better muscle function. It also could lead to higher bone density and a lower risk of injuries, particularly falls. Even mood and stress levels can be impacted by higher physical activity.
Although vigorous activity was the biggest driver for these benefits, he adds that even mild or moderate activity lowered pain risk, compared to being sedentary. Previous research also shows a strong connection between sedentary behavior and chronic pain for older adults, in a bidirectional relationship—having pain can lead to lower activity levels, which then worsens pain.
For example, a study in the journal Pain found that people with musculoskeletal disorders such as knee osteoarthritis who tend to focus on their pain the most end up spending more time in sedentary behavior. This decision can lower their pain management, physical function, and overall health.
Never Too Late
For those who have reached middle age or are older and have not developed a regular exercise routine, the good news is that it is not too late to reap the kind of benefits. For example, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine found that rates of muscle mass in older women were maintained with activity, even when participants only started exercising in middle age.
Rosa Maria Rodrigues Pereira, MD, PhD
— Rosa Maria Rodrigues Pereira, MD, PhD
“Muscle mass plays a key role in aging, because if you’re sedentary and losing that mass quickly, it sets you for all types of issues, including greater risk of falls, lower bone mineral density, injuries, and even increased early mortality risk,” according to Rosa Maria Rodrigues Pereira, MD, PhD, of the University of Sao Paulo’s Medical School in Brazil.
Maintaining muscle mass also tends to require more work, Dr. Pereira says. Echoing this most recent study, a 2011 study highlighted how vigorous workouts are needed to reduce or alleviate musculoskeletal pain. For example, researchers found that people over age 60 often need to lift more weight than younger adults to maintain muscle size and mass.
“Of course, it helps to build muscle mass when you’re younger, so you can have that coming into older age,” says Dr. Pereira. “But really, starting exercise at any age will give you benefits.”
What This Means For You
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