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Research finds that a lifetime of regular exercise slows down aging

By Connie Wan, P.h.D | March 25th, 2019

The benefit of exercising on cardiovascular and brain health are well known and well researched.  How about aging, you may wonder, would exercise slow down the aging process?  The answer is yes according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Birmingham and King’s College London, which has found that staying active keeps the body young and healthy.

The researchers set out to assess the health of older adults who had exercised most of their adult lives to see if this could slow down ageing. The study recruited 125 amateur cyclists aged 55 to 79, 84 of which were male and 41 were female. The men had to be able to cycle 100 km in under 6.5 hours, while the women had to be able to cycle 60 km in 5.5 hours. Smokers, heavy drinkers and those with high blood pressure or other health conditions were excluded from the study.

The participants underwent a series of tests in the laboratory and were compared to a group of adults who do not partake in regular physical activity. This group consisted of 75 healthy people aged 57 to 80 and 55 healthy young adults aged 20 to 36.

The study showed that loss of muscle mass and strength did not occur in those who exercise regularly. Furthermore, the cyclists did not increase their body fat or cholesterol levels with age and the men’s testosterone levels remained high, suggesting that they may have avoided most of the male menopause.

More surprisingly, the study revealed that the benefits of exercise extend beyond muscle.  Specifically, researchers have found that the cyclists had an immune system that did not seem to have aged.  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.  T cells are our body’s natural defense against infections.  Reduced T cells population in old age is one of the reasons for the increased tendency to become ill as we age.  In this study, however, the cyclists’ thymuses were making as many T cells as those of a young person.

The research means that committing to regular exercise throughout a lifetime is a viable solution to the problem that we are living longer but not healthier. Through regular exercise, our bodies could age optimally, free from the problems usually caused by inactivity.

The take home lesson is that finding an exercise that you enjoy in whatever environment that suits you and make a habit of physical activity. You will reap the rewards of being vibrant, productive, independent, and looking fabulous throughout your life.

Thanks for reading.

Journal References:

  1. Ross D. Pollock, Katie A. O’Brien, Lorna J. Daniels, Kathrine B. Nielsen, Anthea Rowlerson, Niharika A. Duggal, Norman R. Lazarus, Janet M. Lord, Andrew Philp, Stephen D. R. Harridge. Properties of the vastus lateralis muscle in relation to age and physiological function in master cyclists aged 55-79 years. Aging Cell, 2018; e12735 DOI: 1111/acel.12735

Duggal et al. Major features of Immunesenescence, including Thymic atrophy, are ameliorated by high levels of physical activity in adulthood. Aging Cell, 2018