Who wouldn’t want to pop a pill that stops aging? No such pill exists but exercise might be the next best thing. According to a review published by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, exercise helps preserve bone, joint, and muscle function as you age. After studying elite senior athletes who had exercised most of their life and practiced good nutrition, researchers were quick to point out the anti-aging benefits of exercise. These lucky, athletic seniors were able, through exercise and nutrition, to minimize changes to their bones, muscles, and joints as they age. This review also emphasized the importance of keeping workouts balanced with exercises that build strength and endurance along with ones that increase flexibility and improve balance.
Preserving Muscle Mass through Resistance Training
It’s no secret that you lose muscle mass as you age. But why? Hormonal changes, a decrease in testosterone and growth hormone, are one factor. If you were to look at muscle fibers from inactive seniors, you’d find the muscles have atrophied and become weaker and smaller. One reason muscles atrophy is because muscle fibers become denervated, or lose their connection with motor neurons that tell them to contract, with age. Once the nerve supply is lost, the muscle atrophies or becomes smaller.
Here’s the good news. Exercise helps prevent denervation and even promotes the reinnervation of muscle fibers. During this process, remodeling occurs and muscle fibers are reconnected with slow-motor neurons, ones ideally suited for endurance activities rather than strength. With age, people lose more fast-twitch muscle fibers than slow twitch ones. But this study showed seniors who were physically active lost significantly less strength than their inactive counterparts.
Continuing to strength train into the later years of life has its advantages. A man in his seventies named Howard Stupp set a world record by deadlifting 501.5 pounds, while a woman named Helen Zechmeister deadlifted 220.6 pounds when she competed in the 75-79 age group. Pretty impressive, huh? Muscular disuse is a major cause of loss of strength and functionality.
Sadly, some older people are negatively reinforced by society when they exercise. Society expects a person to slow down and become less active when age. Rather than encourage them, they tell them to “slow down” or “take it easy” instead of pushing themselves. Some people begin to expect less of themselves as they age and this expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a researcher involved in this current study, Bryan G. Vopat, MD, points out “a lot of the deterioration we see with aging can be attributed to a more sedentary lifestyle – not aging itself.”
Aging and Bone Health
Throughout life, your bones are constantly remodeling. During this remodeling process older bone is replaced with new bone. When bone resorption or breakdown is balanced by the formation of new bone, you maintain bone density. Unfortunately, new bone production slows by the age of 30 and bone resorption begins to exceed new bone formation. As a result, most adults lose about 1% of their bone mass per year by middle age.
Women typically lose more bone over a lifetime than men. Some women have lost more than 80% of their bone mass by the time they reach their mid-80s. Bone loss is a major cause of fractures and disability in older women. According to research, an exercise that loads the bone, high-impact aerobic exercise, and heavy resistance training, reduces the rate of bone loss and even slightly improves bone mineral density. It also reduces the risk of experiencing a fracture.
Healthier Joints through Exercise
With age, joints lose flexibility. In people who don’t use their joints enough through activity, the muscles that stretch across the joint shorten and tighten. This shortening causes a further decrease in flexibility. Resistance training improves muscle strength and keeps the tendons and muscles supple so joints have a greater range of motion. A combination of resistance training and stretching helps maintain joint flexibility.
Osteoarthritis is another problem that increases with age. The vast majority of men and women over age 65 have some degree of osteoarthritis. With osteoarthritis, the cartilage that covers bones and helps reduce friction when the bones move begins to wear away. Inflammation can set in leading to pain and stiffness. At one time, experts believed high-impact exercise might hasten the development of osteoarthritis, but research doesn’t support this idea.
In a study published in the journal Rheumatology, researchers looked at the incidence of knee osteoarthritis in 800 men and women and compared it to the amount of time the participants had spent exercising over a lifetime. They found those who had been physically active were less likely to have severe knee osteoarthritis.
Exercise can help osteoarthritis symptoms. A combination of resistance training to build muscle strength and flexibility exercises to increase the range of motion helps improve pain and stiffness in people with osteo.
The Bottom Line?
As this study points out, exercise delays aging and helps people stay active and functional. Many of the problems associated with aging like bone loss, joint problems and loss of strength and lean muscle mass is a product of disuse. In addition, exercise lowers the risk for other age-related diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and some forms of cancer. So, get out the weights, resistance bands, and your exercise shoes and you may not need that anti-aging pill after all. Use exercise as your medicine instead!
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. “Lifetime of fitness: Fountain of youth for bone, joint health?.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 August 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140827122634.htm>.
“Long-Term High-Level Exercise Promotes Muscle Reinnervation With Age” Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology. March 2014.
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Physical Dimensions of Aging. Waneen W. Spirduos. Human Kinetics Publishing 1995.
Medscape.com. “Light Exercise May Delay or Prevent Osteoarthritis of the Knee”
Ageing Res Rev. 2013 Jan;12(1):226-36. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2012.09.005. Epub 2012 Sep 28.
Ann. Rheum. Dis. 55: 692-4. (1996)
Centers for Disease Control. “Why Strength Training?”
Medscape Family Medicine. “Strength Training for Treatment of Osteoarthritis of the Knee: A Systematic Review”
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