How Exercise Holds the Key to Ageless Living and Vitality
Do you ever wish your body was as fit and lithe now as it was 10 years ago? Then get up and keep moving! Studies show that exercise not only slows the ageing process but may also help you turn back the physical effects of time and allow ageless living.
A follow-up of five 50-something men involved in the Dallas Bed Rest and Training study found that 30 years on, their aerobic and cardiovascular fitness had plummeted. Under supervision, they gradually returned to more exercise, increasing their training over six months. At the end of that period, the results were startling. When re-measured, all five men had completely restored their fitness to the level it was 30 years earlier. Exercise had reversed their ageing process.
The benefits of regular exercise in promoting wellbeing as we age are so impressive and diverse across all areas of health that exercise is the closest thing to an elixir of youth ever discovered. You don’t have to run marathons or punish yourself with gruelling boot camp workouts to reap the rewards of exercise. In fact, overdoing it can have the opposite effect and make you age faster via impacts on your immune system and the production of free radicals. Regular exercise in moderation, however, can help you to live longer and healthier.
The Norfolk EPIC study, which tracked the health habits of 20,000 men and women, found that exercise was one of four behaviours that led to an average increased lifespan of 14 years (along with not smoking, drinking moderate amounts of alcohol and eating five serves of vegetables daily). Research conducted as part of the long-term Physician’s Health study in the US found that men in their 70s who enjoy regular physical activity, don’t smoke, are not obese and do not have diabetes have a 54 per cent chance of celebrating their 90th birthday. Exercise also promotes vitality. Research shows it can reduce fatigue by 65 per cent and increase energy by 20 per cent.
Exercise helps to nurture your body, mind and spirit. For this reason, we should stop thinking of exercise as a chore or simply a fast track to tight, toned bums and thighs. Instead, exercise should be embraced as a self-nurturing lifestyle change that will maintain the health of your body so you can enjoy your life with passion and vigour. Aim for 30 to 45 minutes most days of the week.
From yoga and Pilates to walking, swimming, playing tennis, pulling weeds out of the garden and raking up leaves, healthy exercise comes in many varied, enjoyable and exciting forms. To maintain motivation to stay fit, it’s essential to find a form of exercise you enjoy. Look beyond the gym to exercise that brings you back in contact with nature, such as tai chi in the park, walking at dusk, hiking in the mountains and surfing.
Prevent boredom by listening to music, ebooks or podcasts while you exercise. Consider exercise with a feel-good factor such as belly dancing or inline skating. Challenge yourself with indoor climbing or squad swimming. Or sign up for a team sport and you’ll be compelled to turn up so you don’t let the others down. Once you commit to regular exercise, you never look back and enjoy an impressive range of healthy benefits for life.
You don’t need to have washboard abs and buffed biceps to sustain muscle. All types of exercise benefit muscles in some way, helping them become leaner and stronger, ensuring continued independence and better quality of life as you age. Strong muscles are important for:
Correct posture: Which encourages not only confidence but better breathing and optimal functioning of all your body systems.
Good balance: Helping to prevent falls and accidents that can lead to broken bones and joints (such as hip fracture, which can shorten lifespan due to subsequent health complications).
Healthy bones: Which work to support your muscles so you maintain mobility and flexibility well into old age. Optimal insulin levels and blood sugar control: Reducing your risk of weight gain and diabetes.
Healthy body weight: More muscle makes it easier for your body to consume extra calories and prevent you gaining unhealthy body fat.
A reserve of nutrients for organs: In case of illness, the more muscle you have, the greater your chance of surviving a serious illness such as cancer.
A sedentary lifestyle results in around 300 grams of muscle loss each year. Over five years, this amounts to nearly 2kg of muscle that has wasted away. Factor in a further loss of 1 per cent of your muscle each year after the age of 40 and you get the picture: move it or lose it.
Strength and resistance training (largely interchangeable terms) are the best forms of exercise to sustain and build muscle. Technically, strength training is an umbrella term for weight training. Resistance training is a specific form of strength training where effort or muscular contractions are sustained against a specific opposing force, such as rubber tubing resistance bands or hydraulic exercise machines.
You can start strength and resistance training at any age — in your 20s, 60s or 90s. For best results, aim for a 30-minute session two to three times a week, with one full rest day between strength training sessions to allow your muscles to fully repair and recover.
Bones and joints
Your bones are constantly being broken down and rebuilt in response to the demands and stresses placed on them. Resistance exercise stimulates bone rebuilding and decreases bone breakdown, helping to protect bone density. Lack of exercise causes an increase in bone breakdown and decreased bone rebuilding, eventually leading to osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercise, meaning exercise in which you support your bodyweight, including brisk walking, running, jumping, tennis, netball and so forth (not cycling or swimming where your bodyweight is supported), is the most effective way of maintaining bone mass throughout your adult life.
Exercise can maintain healthy joints in two ways: by building strong, healthy muscles, helping to protect and stabilise your joints; and by pumping fluid around your joints, increasing the delivery of nutrients and the removal of waste products. Aim for a 30-minute strength and resistance program two to three times each week to develop strong, healthy muscles and build bone mass, which reduces your risk of fractures, disability and chronic pain as you get older.
The best antidote to a stressful day is to boost “happy hormones” such as serotonin and endorphins through a session of exercise. Being active also encourages healthy hormonal balance by reducing levels of stress hormones, which prime your body to fight or take flight. Exercise helps you burn up or utilise these stress hormones in the way nature intended. Over long periods of time, high levels of stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol can result in muscle tension and loss, high blood pressure, digestive problems, insomnia, chronic fatigue, reduced ability to heal and repair and a suppressed immune system — hardly a recipe for healthy ageing.
Exercise can also stimulate the production of growth hormone, often touted as the anti-ageing hormone. Growth hormone helps to enhance the health of muscles and bone as well as stimulating collagen renewal and fat metabolism. While exercise stimulates the production and release of more growth hormone, it is released during sleep from the pituitary gland, making a good night’s sleep an essential part of your anti-ageing routine. Here again, exercise comes to the rescue. One study of people with sleep complaints showed that a 16-week moderate exercise program consisting of exercises ranging from walking to stationary cycling and aerobics at least four times a week resulted in an average increase of 45 minutes sleep a night and faster onset of sleep (up to 15 minutes earlier or more).
To maximise the effects of exercise on growth hormone production, it’s recommended that you train at least three times a week for 10 minutes above the “lactate threshold”. This is the point at which lactic acid starts to accumulate in the bloodstream. During light-intensity exercise, your blood lactic acid levels don’t vary much from your resting levels, but begin to rise as intensity increases.
The lactate threshold usually spells the beginning of the end for a session of high-intensity training. For non-athletes, interval training is probably the most effective method of exercise for increasing growth hormone production. Taking two grams of the amino acid glutamine 60 to 90 minutes before your workout and 25 grams of protein immediately afterwards is also believed to enhance human growth hormone and promote fat burning.
Healthy circulation ensures that all your cells and organs receive essential nutrients and toxins are removed. It also improves oxygen flow to your brain so your mind is firing on all cylinders. Lose circulation to any part of your body and cells quickly stop functioning and eventually die (think about what happens to a stagnant pond). Better circulation can also help to improve your sex life. One of the biggest causes of erectile dysfunction is reduced circulation to the penis due to atherosclerosis.
Walking is the best exercise to improve your circulation. It pumps blood back to the heart as the muscles in your legs contract around the veins and force blood upwards. Regular brisk walking can help to keep your arteries healthy, too. Arteries become stiff and less elastic with age, which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. European research released in 2008 examined the health of arteries in a group of sedentary middle-aged and elderly adults and found that daily brisk walking for as little as 12 weeks can actually reverse these age-related changes to the arteries and improve circulation to the legs, even during rest.
Your lymphatic system operates a little like internal filtration and forms an important part of your immune system. Exercises such as walking help to pump your lymphatic system and remove toxic waste products from around your cells. Deep breathing facilitates lymphatic drainage due to changing pressures in your abdominal cavity as you breathe, so any type of moderate-intensity cardio exercise is also a great form of detoxification.
Jumping on a rebounder (a mini trampoline) is also very beneficial. Your lymph system circulates fluid through a series of tubes, which utilise one-way valves. Mini-tramp exercise varies the pressure in these valves so that they open and close. At the bottom of the bounce, the increase in pressure closes the valves. At the top of the bounce, the decreased pressure encourages the valves to open. The end result? Your lymphatic fluid movesmore freely and your lymphatic system works more effectively.
Working out can help to prevent and reduce digestive problems such as constipation. Exercise and breathing both massage and tone your digestive tract, making a daily walk ideal for anyone who suffers from constipation or slow digestion. Exercise also helps digestion by lowering levels of stress hormones, which switch off digestion and can lead to bloating and discomfort, irritable bowel symptoms and reduced absorption of essential nutrients from both food and supplements.
Mental and emotional health
A stimulating jog or session of swimming can be an effective tool for treating and preventing depression without any of the side-effects of medication. Exercise may help to alleviate the blues by increasing serotonin levels in the brain, decreasing levels of stress hormones that promote anxiety and improving both mood and self esteem. In fact, research has shown that exercising three times a week can be as effective as medication in alleviating the symptoms of major depression.
People who exercise regularly experience fewer infections than their sedentary counterparts and, when they do get sick, recover much faster, according to a multitude of studies. One of the most effective forms of exercise for a stronger immune system is walking. Forget flu shots — 30 to 45 minutes of daily walking is a much better way to stay healthy over winter, plus you get all the other benefits of regular exercise. Excessive exercising, on the other hand, has the opposite effect and suppresses immune function while increasing the risk of infection.
Exercise makes your immune system more effective by decreasing levels of stress hormones, which suppress the immune system. It also helps to boost levels of immune cells called “macrophages”, which destroy bacteria and yeasts and help your body repair after injury. During moderate exercise, your immune cells circulate more effectively around your body and are more vigilant against bacteria and viruses.
If you’re sick with a cold or flu, it’s important to modify your exercise program appropriately. Exercise immunologists recommend the following guidelines regarding exercise and illness:
It is safe to resume intensive exercise a few days after recovering from common cold symptoms, such as sore throat and runny nose (as long as you are without fever).
Mild exercise such as gentle walking is safe while you are sick with a cold.
If you experience fever, muscle aches, swollen lymph glands or fatigue, you should wait two to four weeks before resuming intensive exercise or run the risk of further suppressing your immune system. Gentle walking or swimming is OK during this period.
Feeling wired or wound up? One of the most important effects of exercise on your ability to age healthily is its essential role in stress management. High levels of stress hormones literally make you age faster and put you at an increased risk of degenerative conditions from dementia and heart disease through to depression and weight gain. With regular exercise you not only feel more resilient mentally and emotionally, your body becomes more resilient as well.
Walking can be one of the most effective forms of exercise for healthy ageing — as long as you do it vigorously enough (window shopping doesn’t count). Walking is gentle on your joints and combines the benefits of weight bearing and cardio exercise in one. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your walks.
- Aim for moderate intensity — it should be a stretch to hold a conversation.
- Try to sustain it for at least 30 minutes or longer.
- To increase the intensity of your walk, try to include some hills or stairs.
- Modify your pace — try to include some brisker walking to get your heart rate up.
- To increase the strength and resistance benefits of your walk, try using some light wrist and ankle weights.
- Invest in a pair of good-quality shoes for walking and replace them when they start to wear.
- Join a walking club, find yourself a walking buddy or offer to walk a neighbour’s dog.
- Use a pedometer to monitor your walking each day.
- Use the stairs instead of the lift.
- Park further away from your destination or alight the bus or train a few stops earlier to help balance your ratio of sedentary and physical activity.
Fitness fanatic fall-out
Though 45 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise can have many anti-ageing benefits, exercising at high intensity for 90 minutes or more can be detrimental to health. Here’s what to keep in mind:
- Pushing your body to the limit for too long during exercise increases the production of free radicals and suppresses the function of the immune system for hours and sometimes days.\
- Excessive exercise can cause damage to tissues and promote the production of inflammatory chemicals called “cytokines” — in particular, interkelukin-1 and 6, which may encourage tumour growth, virus replication and autoimmune diseases.
If you can’t give up running marathons, entering triathlons or pumping to the point of exhaustion at the gym, at least make sure you drink one litre of carbohydrate drink an hour, as this may help reduce the production of stress hormones that over-exhaustion causes. Also add organic sprouts such as alfalfa and mung beans to your diet — their high sterol content appears to counter some of the effects of stress hormones such as cortisol.
Mix it up
Cross-training to include the following variety of exercise types in your workout routine ensures overall fitness:
Aerobic fitness: This includes any activity that increases your heart rate, making you huff and puff. Aerobic exercise promotes circulation, tones heart muscle and improves the elasticity of your arteries, which reduces blood pressure. The key is to keep yourself in the zone of moderate intensity for 30 to 45 minutes for at least five days a week. Try a gym step class, swimming, cycling, skipping, climbing stairs or cleaning the house and yard. If you keep up aerobic exercise during middle age and beyond, you may delay ageing by at least 12 years and maintain independence for longer as you age, according to 2008 research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Strengthening: Aerobic activity such as walking, cycling and climbing stairs builds stronger bones and muscles and maintains strength. Specific strength training or resistance exercises include resistance machines, free weights, Pilates and rubber tubing resistance bands that can be used to work all major muscle groups. Weights and resistance workouts should be sustained for 30 minutes two to three times a week.
Balance: Exercise such as tai chi, martial arts and yoga promote good balance, which can prevent falls and injuries as you age by improving your body’s ability to compensate quickly for sudden changes such as bumps, twists and skids. Lower body exercises that build strength also promote better balance, as does the use of balance boards and Swiss balls during
Flexibility: Stretching helps to promote flexibility, which is important for good posture and minimising aches and pains associated with ageing due to stiff tight muscles and joints. Yoga, Pilates, tai chi and general stretching exercises are all effective forms.