How To Avoid Getting Frail As You Get Older

Staying active plays a critical role
elderly woman walking outside

The word “frail” often is used to describe the appearance of an older adult. The term itself suggests vulnerability, slowness and disability. The medical definition of frailty requires that three of these characteristics be present:

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  • Shrinking/weight loss (10 pounds or more in one year).
  • Physical exhaustion (self-reported).
  • Muscle weakness (measured by weak grip strength).
  • Decline in walking speed.
  • Low physical activity.

Unfortunately, low physical activity is a common way of life for many Americans. “I can honestly say that physical activity and/or exercise is probably the most difficult prescription for my patients to fill,” says geriatric specialist Ronan Factora, MD

We asked Dr. Factora how you can avoid getting frail as you age. 

A vicious cycle

Dr. Factora says, with older adults, much of their time is spent in sedentary pursuits. 

“If they’re not watching TV, then they’re in front of some type of a screen (such as a computer or handheld device), reading, doing puzzles — anything but moving around,” he says. As a result, the muscles in these older adults lose their functional capacity and tone, and may eventually become infiltrated with fat.

Aside from the obvious change in muscle tissue, an older adult’s ability to function is also affected. “As a result, this also leads to reported physical exhaustion, muscle weakness, and potentially a decline in walking speed,” says Dr. Factora. 

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He says lack of physical activity alone also could lead to decline in walking speed due to a loss of muscle tone, muscle function, and cardiovascular endurance.

“Low physical activity is not only a consequence of weight loss and muscle mass loss — it can become a cause,” says Dr. Factora. 

This leads to a downward spiral in consuming adequate calories. Dr. Factora says when you’re not physically active, your appetite dwindles, and this can lead to inadequate protein and calorie intake which are what your body uses to maintain muscle mass and support further physical activity.

“Higher physical activities compel a person to actually eat more and replenish their body with the calories it needs.” 

It’s clear how all of these frailty characteristics are interrelated. “Developing frailty does not happen overnight,” says Dr. Factora. “It takes years for frailty syndrome to develop as a consequence of low physical activity and weight loss. When it does develop, reversal is extremely difficult.”

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The secret to maintaining independence

Generally speaking, people want to maintain independence and a good quality of life while aging, and they want to avoid disability as much as possible. Many people mistakenly assume frailty is part of normal aging. It’s true that many aging persons do become frail, but there are a number of interventions that can prevent or even reverse frailty. 

Though it may seem simple, all individuals should do the following to help reduce the risk of developing disability and frailty:

  • Reduce the amount of sedentary time you spend on a daily basis. “Cut back on sitting around during the day.
    I recommend no more than three hours daily of this,” says Dr. Factora. 
  • Introduce a routine exercise regimen. A cardiovascular exercise regimen can help with endurance and walking speed and may also help increase your appetite. Resistance and weight training can help preserve muscle mass. “Exercises should be done for at least 30 minutes daily five days of the week,” says Dr. Factora. “This is really the minimum that you should shoot for.”
  • Avoid losing weight, particularly if you’re inactive, as weight loss leads to more muscle loss than fat loss.

“Making a physical activity routine sounds easy and straightforward, but from my clinical perspective, regular exercise can be difficult for older patients to sustain,” says Dr. Factora. 

Despite the challenge, this simple intervention can be the foundation for avoiding frailty and disability and maintaining independence into later life.

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