Who doesn’t want to live a long, happy life and stay healthy, happy, and functional as they age? According to research published in the journal Immune Ageing, how we age is 75% lifestyle and only 25% genetics. Lifestyle matters!
One lifestyle habit that’s intrinsic to any successful aging program is exercise. Hippocrates wisely proclaimed that food is medicine, but he could have also said exercise is medicine. In fact, research shows that physical fitness plays a key role in how we age. Let’s look at five scientifically-backed ways exercise slows aging.
Cardiorespiratory Fitness is a Marker for Longevity
We think of blood pressure, lipid levels, and inflammatory measures as being markers health and aging. But cardiorespiratory fitness may be just as important. The best measure of cardiorespiratory fitness is aerobic capacity or V02max. If you have a high aerobic capacity, your heart and lungs have a greater capacity to deliver oxygen to tissues and cells and the cells are efficient at using that oxygen to make energy to fuel exercise. Therefore, you have greater endurance when you do sub-maximal exercise, like jogging for a long distance.
In fact, aerobic capacity is an independent predictor of mortality. In a large study involving 11,335 women, researchers compared V02 max in women with mortality data. The data showed that women who were fit from a cardiovascular perspective had a lower death rate from all causes, irrespective of the women’s weight. So, your aerobic capacity may be just as important as other health markers, like lipids! You can improve your V02 max by up to 25% through training. That’s a powerful endorsement for doing some form of aerobic exercise or high-intensity interval training.
It’s a Boon for Bone Health
One common and, sometimes, a life-threatening injury that the elderly sustain is a hip fracture. Hip fractures are often caused by mild trauma to a brittle bone. In fact, a nasty fracture may be the first sign of osteoporosis. Hip fractures are no laughing matter! The mortality rate during the first year after sustaining one is 25%. On the plus side, physical activity helps build bone during early adulthood and helps reduce further loss later in adulthood. Being inactive is a strong risk factor for osteoporosis.
Two types of exercise, high-impact aerobic exercise that works large muscle groups, and strength training, place enough stress on the bones to stimulate them. You need to lift fairly heavy, at least 80% of one-rep max to maximize the benefits to your bones. Training with light weights has fewer benefits, based on some research. It’s also important to do balance training by doing more one-legged exercises and exercises on an unstable surface. Poor balance skills are another contributor to falls.
Strength Training Helps Prevent Frailty
Loss of muscle strength and mass, when pronounced, leads to the inability to carry out daily activities. The reason many elderly people are in nursing homes is that they’ve lost so much muscle mass and strength they can’t carry out the tasks they were once able to do. Their muscles have wasted away from disuse and inactivity. This doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual loss of muscle tissue over time. Researchers also point out that this doesn’t have to happen. We can do much to preserve our strength and muscle function as we age through strength training. A decrease in power capabilities also contributes to the loss of function due to aging. Including exercises that build power, explosive-style training, and plyometrics, is beneficial.
Exercise Counters Sarcopenia
Sarcopenia is the age-related loss of muscle accompanied by a gradual increase in body fat. If you think your body composition changes as you age, you’re right and it’s due to loss of muscle and gains in body fat. It’s not just an aesthetic problem. As you lose muscle and gain body fat, insulin sensitivity declines and the risk of type 2 diabetes goes up. Type 2 diabetes is now an epidemic and a leading cause of death in Western countries.
Exercise is a sarcopenia buster! Aerobic and high-intensity interval training helps improve insulin sensitivity so that your body processes glucose better and doesn’t pump out as much insulin. Lower insulin levels make it easier to control body fat. But resistance training is no less important for countering sarcopenia.
And don’t think it’s too late to start. Even the elderly can build muscle strength and size. Research shows that older men and women can increase the size of their quads by 5 to 15% after strength training for 6 to 30 weeks. Muscles respond to training at any age.
Exercise Combats Aging at the Cellular Level
One observation scientists have made is that exercise is linked with longer telomeres, a marker of longevity. Telomeres are like protective end caps at the end of a cell’s chromosomes. These caps protect the DNA from damage each time the cell divides. Longer telomeres are linked with longevity, and studies show that people who exercise have longer telomeres.
Scientists have also found a link between telomere length and chronic disease associated with aging, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. People with these health conditions have shorter telomeres than healthy folks. So, longer telomeres may be a marker of healthy aging and exercise is one of the few things that seems to lengthen them.
What type of exercise is best? In one study, men and women who did the equivalent of 30 to 40 minutes of jogging five days per week had a telomere length equivalent to being about seven years younger from a biological standpoint. Most evidence suggests that aerobic exercise has the strongest link to telomere length. So, do something that gets your heart rate up several times per week, whether it’s moderate-intensity exercise or high-intensity interval training.
The Bottom Line
Exercise is anti-aging medicine! So, make sure you’re making it part of your lifetime plan for staying fit, healthy, and functional.
NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center. “Osteoporosis Overview”
Aging Dis. 2014 Jun; 5(3): 183–195.
Oncotarget. 2017 Jul 4; 8(27): 45008–45019.
Immune Ageing. 2016; 13: 12. Published online 2016 Apr 5. doi: 10.1186/s12979-016-0066-z.