Who doesn’t want to slow down the aging process? Fortunately, we know more about how aging occurs than ever before, although some aspects are still a mystery at the cellular level. The biggest cause of premature mortality in Western countries is heart disease and heart-related deaths, including heart attacks and strokes. In fact, 610,000 people die of heart disease each year in the United States. So, anything we can do to slow down the rate at which our heart age will help us stay around longer. In that regard, exercise is an anti-aging habit you want in your anti-aging arsenal. In fact, a new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association shows just how important exercise is for keeping the old ticker in shape.
In the study, researchers followed 1,600 older adults for 5 days. The participants wore a device that monitored their activity levels throughout the day and recorded them. Also, the researchers tracked various heart-related markers on the subjects, including cholesterol precursors and several markers of inflammation. We now know that inflammation plays a role in cardiovascular disease as it damages the inner walls of blood vessels and increases the risk of a dangerous clot forming inside the vessel wall.
What the study showed was that engaging in some sort of activity for at least 10 minutes was linked with improvements in at least one anti-aging cardiovascular biomarker. These biomarkers are measurable components that signify a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. In the study, the bursts of activity didn’t have to be prolonged to have an impact on heart markers. For example, a brisk walk, a game of tennis, vigorous housework all qualified. In contrast, more periods of sitting for 10 minutes or longer was associated with unfavorable changes in cardiovascular risk markers
The Health Risks of Sitting
Why is exercise, even short periods of it, protective to the heart and sitting so detrimental? Inactivity is linked with unfavorable changes to the inner walls of blood vessels. Sedentary pursuits, especially sitting for long periods of time actually changes how they function, what we call endothelial function. Endothelial function regulates elasticity or stiffness of the arterial wall and how well it dilates to maximize blood flow and lower blood pressure. Sitting for prolonged periods of time worsens endothelial function while exercise temporarily improves it.
Some experts believe that low levels of “shear stress” inside a blood vessel are what makes sitting so harmful. Shear stress is the force that arteries experience due to blood flow. While low shear stress sounds like a good thing, when the stress is low, the vessel fails to produce chemicals, particularly nitric oxide, that opens up the vessel and keep it functionally optimally. Once you get up and start walking around or exercising, shear stress increases and blood vessel function improves. Another downside to sitting is it increases the risk of blood clots forming within a blood vessel. We need those muscle contractions to help blood return to the heart so that it doesn’t pool in the legs and feet. Over time, blood pooling in the legs from sitting can damage the valves inside the vein. That’s when you start to see varicose veins as well!
Other Anti-Aging Downsides to Sitting
When you sit for long periods of time without taking a walking break, it dials back the activity of enzymes that break down triglycerides in your bloodstream. Triglycerides are fats carried in your blood. Ideally, you want these fats to be removed from the bloodstream quickly after a meal since high blood triglycerides are linked with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease. One study found that replacing two hours of time spent sitting with two hours of standing time led to an 11% reduction in triglycerides. Even better, when two hours of sitting time was replaced with time spent stepping, triglycerides dropped even more, by 14%.
Prolonged sitting also reduces insulin sensitivity, the readiness with which cells respond to the hormone insulin. Ideally, you want cells to be exquisitely responsive to insulin, to open their gates and let glucose and amino acids into cells with a minimum of insulin release. That happens when you have good insulin sensitivity. However, sitting promotes insulin resistance where cells respond only sluggishly to insulin’s requests and the pancreas has to pump out more and more. Over time, this can lead to insulin resistance and a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. So, moving your body helps insulin function and that, in turn, improves blood sugar control and lowers the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Research also shows that sitting a lot during the day and sitting for long periods of time without taking breaks is linked to higher overall mortality. That’s why it’s so important to move more throughout the day even if you do a formal workout. A structured workout doesn’t necessarily protect you against the bodily harm due to too much sitting. The two are independent risk factors.
Anti-Aging Benefits of Short Workouts
One way to break up the time you spend sitting and quickly improve how your blood vessels function is to do short workouts of around 10 minutes throughout the day. One of the best times to take a 10-min workout break is after a meal. Research shows that taking a brisk walk or doing other moderate exercises for 10 minutes after a meal is better for blood sugar control than doing a 30-minute workout at other times. Keep that in mind the next time you’re feeling sluggish after eating. It’s a good way to wake up too!
The Bottom Line
Even 10-minute exercise sessions scattered throughout the day can lower your risk of heart disease. But, make sure that between these brief exercise breaks that you’re not sitting too much. Get up and move, if only for a few minutes and enjoy the anti-aging benefits of brief exercise.
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Journal of the American Heart Association. “Physical Activity, Sedentary Time, and Cardiovascular Disease Biomarkers at Age 60 to 64 Years”
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American Physiological Society. “Endothelial dysfunction following prolonged sitting is mediated by a reduction in shear stress”
Eur Heart J. 2015 Oct 14;36(39):2643-9. doi: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehv308. Epub 2015 Jul 30.
WebMD.com. “Have Type 2 Diabetes? Try Walking After Eating”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Heart Disease Facts”
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