Use it or lose it

September 20, 2004

RESEARCHERS HAVE hit upon what sounds like the perfect prescription for older Americans worried about coping with rising health costs.

It's a therapy that lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, obesity and stroke, and at the same time wards off depression and the moodiness of menopause. What's more, it's cheap.

The downside is that it requires effort and determination, and returns little immediate gratification beyond the endorphin high.

No doubt where we're going here, right? Down the old jogging path, which as it turns out offers as many benefits or more for older runners as for youthful ones and does not discriminate on the basis of age in terms of training potential.

In fact, a 16-year study of 415,000 New York Marathon finishers showed runners in their 50s are improving at a faster rate than younger competitors.

People tend to be weaker as they age, many such studies show, not because they are doing (or have done) too much, but because they are doing (or have done) too little.

Running is not for everyone, of course. But employers, insurance companies or individuals picking up the tab for health care expenses should be doing what they can to encourage at least moderate exercise.

That may sound like old news. But there are still plenty of health insurance plans that will pay for blood pressure medicine far more quickly than for exercise classes, said Dr. Kerry Stewart, who teaches clinical exercise physiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Medical science is also a bit to blame. A spirited search is under way for a gene therapy that can reverse the effects and repair the damage of a life of inactivity. After much time and investment, perhaps it will succeed.

Meanwhile, Dr. Stewart observes the fastest and surest route to improving physical and mental health is "gym therapy."

It's not too late, no matter what the age or infirmity. Even creaky old knees will be the better for it, since movement is the most effective treatment for osteoarthritis.

Just lace up the sneakers and get out there.

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