Meredith Luttrell, Ph.D
As we get older, a vibrant quality of life enables us to keep doing the things we enjoy and that bring meaning to our lives. Exercise is important for health, but it is also one of the best ways to stay energetic and independent with age. Aerobic exercise has numerous health benefits, including healthier blood vessels. While we tend to think of only the heart with cardiovascular health and disease, blood vessels play a very important role in maintaining cardiovascular health.
Rather than being simply plumbing taking blood throughout the body, the vascular system comprises a very active tissue in the body. Blood vessels control the amount of blood an area of the body receives by either constricting (getting smaller), or dilating (getting larger). Do your cheeks flush with excitement or embarrassment? This happens when cheek blood vessels dilate, which increases the amount of blood flowing through the vessels. As a result, cheeks become redder because more blood is present in the vessels. Conversely, when someone is frightened or startled, it is said their face “goes white”. This is due to constriction of blood vessels in the face so that blood flow under the skin is reduced. However, most of the time blood vessels are working with no obvious signs. During such activities as playing tennis, dancing, or taking the dog for a walk, blood vessels that supply your muscles dilate to deliver more oxygen and nutrients to muscles without you even having to think about it.
Unfortunately, with age, the ability of blood vessels to constrict or dilate at the appropriate times becomes impaired. For example, when older adults exercise, the blood vessels supplying the muscles may not dilate enough to meet the oxygen and nutrient requirements of the muscle, making exercise seem more difficult. There is good news, however. Regular physical activity, especially aerobic activity, actually makes blood vessels healthier. Additionally, antioxidant-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, fish, and legumes can also improve blood vessel function. As a result, even with aging, the blood vessels are better able to respond to exercise, which make everyday activities like playing with grandkids, gardening, and walking the dog, easier. Not only are daily activities and hobbies easier and more enjoyable, physical activity also reduces the risk of developing chronic diseases like hypertension and heart disease. In turn, this helps older adults be healthier, happier, and more independent- all characteristics of successful aging.
- Seals, DR, et al. Habitual exercise and arterial aging. Journal of Applied Physiology. 105: 1323-1332, 2008. http://jap.physiology.org/content/jap/105/4/1323.full.pdf
- Mazzeo, RS, et al. ACSM Position Stand: Exercise and Physical Activity for Older Adults. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 30:992-1008, 1998. Word Document Attached