The Senior Shuffle

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

May 2009

Do you ever wonder why older persons shuffle when they walk? It's because their leg muscles are too weak for them to lift up their feet!

The shuffle is much more than a sign of aging. It's one more indicator of the subtle downward trend in fitness that leads to chronic disease. As Baby Boomers reach the Age of Osteoporosis they are at increasing risk of falls and fractures. What is a common disorder now will reach epidemic proportions as Boomers and the generations to follow reap the effects of poor lifestyle choices.

Given a smooth walking surface without too much friction, getting around is no problem. But what happens when a shuffling senior encounters a raised section of sidewalk, a lump in the carpet or a threshold that is a little higher than usual? The answer, unfortunately, is often a broken hip or wrist.

Seniors can lower their risk of fracture considerably by increasing their physical activity using weights and exercise machines. Lest senior readers think that it wouldn't matter, consider the results of a program developed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Center on Aging nearly two decades ago. They found that the muscles of even the very elderly responded to properly supervised weight training. After only 8 weeks the female residents of a nursing home tripled their muscle strength. The same results occurred in another group of men and women whose average age was more than 90 years and who suffered from an average of four chronic diseases.

All exercise is good but some forms of physical activity are better than others for developing a stronger skeleton. Aerobic exercises such as walking, jogging, biking and dancing improve heart and lung fitness but don't do as much for bone strength as resistance exercises. Swimming is a wonderful recreational activity and it contributes to heart and lung health but only a little to bone strength.

Bones become thicker and stronger when the muscles that are attached to them work harder. That's true even among populations whose calcium intake is less than what nutritionists regard as optimal. It helps to explain why the rate of hip fractures in Third World countries is lower than ours. Their diet contains less calcium but their lifestyle requires more physical effort.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.