Keeping active throughout life could help keep the body younger and healthier as we age according to new UK research.
Researchers at the University of Birmingham and King’s College London, the study set out to look at whether a lifetime of exercise had slowed down ageing in a group of older adult participants.
The researchers recruited 125 male and female healthy amateur cyclists, who were aged 55 to 79 and had been cycling for nearly all of their adult lives. The participants provided blood samples and muscle biopsy samples, which were then compared to a group of healthy adults who did not take part in regular physical activity.
This group consisted of 55 young adults aged 20 to 36 and 75 older adults aged 57 to 80. Results showed that a loss of muscle mass and strength, which is often believed to be normal part of the aging process, did not occur in the cyclists. In addition, their body fat and cholesterol levels also had not increased with age. The men’s testosterone levels had also remained high, rather than declined with age, suggesting that they may have avoided most of the ‘male menopause.’
Even more surprisingly, the researchers also found that exercise appeared to have an anti-aging effect on the immune systems of the cyclists, as well as their muscles. An organ called the thymus, which makes immune cells called T cells, starts to shrink from the
age of 20 and makes less T cells, however the team found that in this study, the cyclists’ thymuses were making as many T cells as those of a young person.
Commenting on the findings, Dr. Niharika Arora Duggal from the University of Birmingham, said, “We hope these findings prevent the danger that, as a society, we accept that old age and disease are normal bedfellows and that the third age of man is something to be endured and not enjoyed.”
Professor Stephen Harridge, Director of the Center of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences at King’s College London, also added that, “The findings emphasise the fact that the cyclists do not exercise because they are healthy, but that they are healthy because they have been exercising for such a large proportion of their lives. Their bodies have been allowed to age optimally, free from the problems usually caused by inactivity. Remove the activity and their health would likely deteriorate.”
“Find an exercise that you enjoy in whatever environment that suits you and make a habit of physical activity. You will reap the rewards in later life by enjoying an independent and productive old age.”
The findings can be found detailed in two papers published online in the journal Aging Cell.
It was initially believed that when it comes to building muscle, cardio paled in comparison to exercises like resistance training, which are designed to help you gain strength. But a recent review of 14 studies published in the journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews found that on average, men who did 45 minutes of moderate to intense cardio 4 days a week saw a 5%-6% increase in leg muscle size.
“Aerobic exercise, if done properly, can lead to as much muscle growth as you’d expect with resistance exercise,” Ball State University exercise scientist Matthew Harber, who authored the study, told Men’s Fitness.
Cardio exercise may even help reverse some heart damage from normal aging.
Many of us become less active as we get older. Over time, this can lead some muscles in the heart to stiffen. One of those at-risk muscles is in the left chamber of the heart, a section that plays a key role in supplying the body with freshly-oxygenated blood.
A recent study split 53 adults into two groups, one of which did two years of supervised exercise four to five days per week while the other simply did yoga and balance exercises. At the end of the study, published in January in the journal Circulation, the higher-intensity exercisers saw significant improvements in their heart’s performance. Those results suggest that some stiffening in the heart can be prevented or even reversed with regular cardio.
“Based on a series of studies performed by our team over the past 5 years, this ‘dose’ of exercise has become my prescription for life,” Benjamin Levine, the author of the study and a professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern, said in a statement.
Heart-pumping workouts appear to have a positive impact on your gut.
A small study published in November suggests that cardio exercise changes the makeup of the microbes in our gut.
Those microbes play a role in inflammation levels, which can be an early warning sign of illness.
The researchers had study participants exercise three to five times per week for six weeks, and observed increases in their concentrations of butyrate, a type of fatty acid that helps keep our guts happy by tamping down on inflammation and producing energy.
“These are the first studies to show that exercise can have an effect on your gut independent of diet or other factors,” Jeffrey Woods, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois who led the research, said in a statement.
Cardio may improve cholesterol levels, too.
A large recent review of research on how cardio affects cholesterol levels looked at 13 studies on the topic. It found that aerobic exercise was tied with reductions in LDL, which is also known as “bad” cholesterol because it can build up on the walls of your arteries and raise your risk of heart disease.
Cardio exercise was also linked with increases in HDL, also known as “good” cholesterol because it mobilizes the cholesterol in your blood.
“Prolonged moderate-intensity aerobic exercise should be recommended as a starting point for those who have previously been sedentary or are new to exercise,” the authors wrote.
Cardio workouts may even improve the look and feel of your skin.
A study from researchers at McMaster University found that people over age 40 who engaged in regular cardio activity tended to have healthier skin than their sedentary peers. The overall composition of the regular exercisers’ skin was more comparable to that of 20- and 30-year-olds.
It’s not yet clear why our workouts appear to play a role in skin health, but the researchers found elevated levels of a substance critical to cell health called IL-15 in skin samples of participants after exercise. That finding that could shed light on why cardio seems to make our skin look better.
Cardio may reduce the symptoms of depression.
In addition to boosting the moods of healthy people, aerobic exercise may have a uniquely powerful positive impact on people with depression.
In a pilot study, people with severe depression spent 30 minutes walking on treadmill for 10 consecutive days. The researchers found the activity was “sufficient to produce a clinically relevant and statistically significant reduction in depression.”
Regular Exercise Improve Memory & Thinking Skills
There are plenty of good reasons to be physically active. Big ones include reducing the odds of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Maybe you want to lose weight, lower your blood pressure, prevent depression, or just look better. Here’s another one, which especially applies to those of us (including me) experiencing the brain fog that comes with age: exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills.
In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. Resistance training, balance and muscle toning exercises did not have the same results.
The finding comes at a critical time. Researchers say one new case of dementia is detected every four seconds globally. They estimate that by the year 2050, more than 115 million people will have dementia worldwide.
Exercise and The Brain
Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.
Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.
Many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t. “Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.
Put it to the test
So what should you do? Start exercising! We don’t know exactly which exercise is best. Almost all of the research has looked at walking, including the latest study. “It’s likely that other forms of aerobic exercise that get your heart pumping might yield similar benefits,” says Dr. McGinnis.
How much exercise is required to improve memory? These study participants walked briskly for one hour, twice a week. That’s 120 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week. Standard recommendations advise half an hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week, or 150 minutes a week. If that seems daunting, start with a few minutes a day, and increase the amount you exercise by five or 10 minutes every week until you reach your goal.
If you don’t want to walk, consider other moderate-intensity exercises, such as swimming, stair climbing, tennis, squash, or dancing. Don’t forget that household activities can count as well, such as intense floor mopping, raking leaves, or anything that gets your heart pumping so much that you break out in a light sweat.
Don’t have the discipline to do it on your own? Try any or all of these ideas:
- Join a class or work out with a friend who’ll hold you accountable.
- Track your progress, which encourages you to reach a goal.
- If you’re able, hire a personal trainer.
Whatever exercise and motivators you choose, commit to establishing exercise as a habit, almost like taking a prescription medication. After all, they say that exercise is medicine, and that can go on the top of anyone’s list of reasons to work out.