Exercise is good medicine and one that health care professionals don’t prescribe often enough. Plus, regular physical activity may slow the aging process. No one likes the outward and inward changes that appear with aging and the health problems that go with it, but there’s good news. Exercise may help you stay fitter and healthier longer. Have you ever wondered how exercise slows aging? Let’s look at what science shows about the anti-aging benefits of exercise.
Physical Activity Lowers the Risk of Chronic, Age-Related Health Problems
One thing you can look forward to during mid-life and later is a higher risk of age-related health problems, like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Studies show regular physical activity lowers the risk of both of these health problems. How? Aerobic exercise and strength training improves insulin sensitivity, the way cells handle glucose. By boosting glucose uptake by cells, exercise reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.
Plus, according to the American Cancer Society, exercise lowers the risk of at least 13 types of cancer. How does staying physically active reduce cancer risk? For one, it helps with bodyweight control. Obesity is associated with an increased risk of many cancers in men and women. Plus, aerobic exercise reduces blood levels of estrogen, meaning it may lower the risk of estrogen-dependent breast cancer and cancer of the uterus in females. Also, people who exercise regularly have better insulin sensitivity and lower insulin levels. Insulin is a factor that drives the growth of some cancers.
Exercise Keeps You Smart
Another problem people worry about as the years go by is losing their mental facilities and going into cognitive decline. Dementia is marked by a significant decline in cognitive function and a loss of short-term memory, but there’s a less pronounced form of cognitive dysfunction called mild cognitive impairment (MCI). People with MCI don’t have dementia but they have minor memory and cognitive issues that still impact their quality of life. People with mild cognitive impairment also have a higher risk of developing dementia.
The good news? Studies show exercise improves mild cognitive impairment. A six-month study of adults with MCI found that those who engaged in six months of aerobic exercise experienced improvements in mild cognitive impairment while a group that simply stretched did not.
Research also shows exercise increases the volume of certain portions of the brain, including the hippocampus, a part that plays a key role in learning and memory. Sedentary people also lose brain volume at a faster rate than those who get regular aerobic exercise.
Physical Activity Reduces Frailty
One reason men and women become less functional and fall more later in life is that they lose muscle mass and muscle strength. Strength training is the key to reducing muscle loss and preventing the frailty that comes with old age. It’s never too late to start either. Research shows even people in the eighth and ninth decades of life can build new muscle tissue and gain strength in response to a strength-training program. It’s one of the best investments you can make in your future health.
Exercise Reduces Bone Loss and the Risk of Falling
A fractured hip due to a fall can be life-changing. For an older adult, a tumble can lead to disability and reduced quality of life. Bone density begins to decline after the age of 30 and accelerates during late middle age. Women are at higher risk, especially small-boned women. Yet there is a way to slow the age-related loss of bone density and it’s exercise. Studies show high-impact exercise where both feet leave the ground at the same time, like running or jumping, signals cells called osteoblasts to lay down new bone tissue.
Although it’s questionable whether you can build significant quantities of new bone late in life, high-impact exercise helps maintain the bone density you have and there is some research showing you can modestly enhance bone density even after menopause. Strength training, as long as you use a challenging weight that you can only lift 8 to 10 times, does too. For best results, you need both types of exercise, high impact, and strength training. If you already have osteoporosis, don’t do high-impact exercise without consulting your physician first.
Physical Activity May Boost Telomere Length
Telomeres are the tiny endcaps on the ends of chromosomes, the genetic material inside cells. Chromosomes determine traits such as eye color, hair color, blood type, and more. It’s telomeres that protect the chromosomes from fraying, much like the hard tip on a shoestring protects the shoestring from unraveling. Each time a cell replicates the telomeres become shorter. Once telomeres shorten to a certain point, the cell undergoes senescence and loses their ability to replicate or reproduce themselves. So, longer telomeres offer a longevity advantage.
The good news is research shows physical activity may lengthen telomeres. One study found that physically active people have telomeres that are up to nine years younger than those who are inactive. The amount of activity you need to get these benefits is doable too. Based on the study, 30 to 40 minutes of jogging five days of the week is sufficient. So, staying physically active could slow aging at the cellular level.
The Bottom Line
Now you know why it’s so important to make time for exercise. As Harvard Health Publishing points out, exercise is as effective as some pharmaceuticals for preventing disease-shortening health problems such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Think of it as an investment in your future health and as something you can do to tack on extra years to your life. It will also help you stay more functional too.
· Cancer.org. “Exercise Linked With Lower Risk of 13 Types of Cancer”
· Arch Neurol. 2010 Jan; 67(1): 71-79.doi: 10.1001/archneurol.2009.307.
· ScienceDaily.com. “High levels of exercise linked to nine years of less aging at the cellular level”
· Larry A. Tucker. Physical activity and telomere length in U.S. men and women: An NHANES investigation. Preventive Medicine, 2017; 100: 145 DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2017.04.027.
· Smulders, E., van Lankveld, W., Laan, R. et al. Does osteoporosis predispose falls? a study on obstacle avoidance and balance confidence. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 12, 1 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2474-12-1.
· Harvard Health Publishing. “Is exercise really medicine?”