What Contributes More to Healthy Aging: Exercise or Diet?

Mar 24, 2022

Health and Fitness

What Contributes More to Healthy Aging: Exercise or Diet?

As people age, dietary and activity needs change. For example, you may need fewer calories, and could benefit from lower impact exercises.

Healthy aging describes how people can grow older with minimal need for medical intervention. A well-rounded diet and moderate exercise may prevent illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, or stroke.

Diet and exercise are both contributing factors for overall health and wellness. To discern which provides the greatest benefit, let’s look at the contributions of each lifestyle habit on aging.

How Does Diet Contribute to Healthy Aging?

Diets play an important role in overall health. For instance, the Mediterranean diet, which includes eating plant-based foods, may reduce the combined risk of stroke, heart attack, and death from heart disease, according to several studies.

Other clinical trials suggest that diets high in calories or fat are associated with increased risks for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and dementia.

An eating plan for healthy aging may include

  • Foods that are low in sodium and fat
  • Nutrient dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy, nuts, and seeds
  • Avoiding empty calories, such as those in chips, candy, baked goods, soda, and alcohol
  • Enough liquids to prevent dehydration

According to a number of clinical trials in healthy adults, food restriction shows significant reductions in body weight, blood cholesterol, blood glucose, and blood pressure, which are risk factors for the development of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

How to Eat Healthy as an Older Adult

Aging can make eating healthy difficult sometimes. For example, the following issues may arise

  • Living alone or mobility issues
  • Difficulty cooking or feeding yourself
  • Medicines, which can change how food tastes, make your mouth dry, or reduce appetite
  • Reduced income
  • Problems chewing or swallowing
  • Reduced sense of smell or taste

According to the National Library of Medicine, if you notice any of these issues, try following these tips

  • Organize a potluck meal or cook with a friend. Look into having some meals at a nearby senior center, community center, or religious facility.
  • See your dentist to check for problems if you have trouble chewing.
  • Try drinking plenty of liquids with your meal if you have trouble swallowing. If that does not help, check with your healthcare provider.
  • Try adding color and texture to make your food more interesting if you're having trouble smelling and tasting your food.
  • If you aren't eating enough, add some healthy snacks throughout the day to help you get more nutrients and calories.
  • If an illness is making it harder for you to cook or feed yourself, check with your healthcare provider. They may recommend an occupational therapist, who can help you find ways to make it easier.

To maintain health as you age, include the following in your diet

  • Fruits and vegetables (choose different types with bright colors)
  • Whole grains, like oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, and brown rice
  • Fat-free or low-fat milk and cheese, or soy or rice milk that has added vitamin D and calcium
  • Seafood, lean meats, poultry, and eggs
  • Beans, nuts, and seeds

Related: Women’s Health and Wellness: 5 Steps to Take Care of Yourself

Diets for Healthy Aging with Chronic Illness

Those with chronic illnesses, such as high blood pressure or kidney disease may have other specifications to include in their diet.

For example, following a healthy diet with kidney disease will include limits on

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Phosphorus
  • Protein
  • Fluids.

If you have high blood pressure or kidney disease, you’ll need to reduce your salt intake. Some tips include

  • Cook with herbs and spices for flavor instead of salt.
  • Look at food labels for sodium. Some foods may not taste salty, but still contain a lot of salt.
  • Cut back on convenience foods and prepackaged or frozen meals.
  • Try to avoid fast food, but if you decide to indulge on occasion, look at the nutritional information posted inside the restaurant or on their website.

How Does Exercise Contribute to Healthy Aging?

Being physically active may help you maintain a healthy weight and avoid chronic health problems. How much exercise you need depends on your age and health. Talk to your healthcare provider to determine what is right for you.

Many studies have focused on the benefits of exercise for older adults.

In one study of adults 40 and older, those who took 8,000 steps or more per day had a 51% lower risk of death from all causes, compared to those who took 4,000 steps per day.

Another study found that moderate to vigorous physical activity is strongly associated with muscle function, regardless of age.

Researchers also found that in adults older than 55, muscle mass was a better predictor of longevity than weight or body mass index (BMI).

How to Exercise as an Older Adult

Being physically active in short spurts throughout the day or creating a specific time to exercise, can help get you into the habit.

Activities such as brisk walking and yoga are free or low cost and require no additional equipment.

According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should

  • Do at least 150 minutes (2 ½ hours) per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, like brisk walking.
  • Be active at least 3 days a week.
  • Engage in muscle-strengthening activities, like lifting weights or doing sit-ups, at least 2 days a week.

The Physical Activity Guidelines also recommend combining multiple components of exercises. For example, balance training as well as aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.

Before starting a new fitness routine, ask your doctor the following questions

  • Are there any exercises or activities I should avoid?
  • Is my preventive care up to date?
  • How does my health condition affect my ability to exercise?

Related: Tips: Healthy Eating for an Active Lifestyle

Exercise vs. Diet

Overall, one is not more beneficial than the other. Ideally, older adults are engaging in regular physical activity and eating a healthy, well balanced diet.

To get started on a healthier lifestyle, start with small changes, such as incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet and taking regular walks.

Always consult your healthcare provider before making drastic changes to your diet or physical activity.

Other Tips for Healthy Aging

  • Keep your mind active
  • Make your mental health a priority
  • Participate in activities you enjoy
  • Play an active role in your healthcare
  • Quit smoking
  • Take steps to prevent falls
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