When people tell you exercise is good for aging, the reasons they give you can seem vague.
You may be told you’ll feel better, but enthusiasm can fade when you feel fatigued from exercise.
You may hear it can prolong your life and improve your health, but how? Are exercising benefits real?
Researchers now have some hard science on how exercise affects aging, and the facts can motivate you to take action regarding your quality of life by starting or continuing an exercise program.
Scientists are discovering that aging does not necessarily mean decay. There may be nothing “natural” about becoming increasingly immobile.
Here are the areas where exercise has measurable effects on aging.
Resting Heart Rate, Blood Pressure and Heart-Pumping Capacity
If you’ve been longing to relive your youth, you may have a chance of doing just that, at least in terms of your vital signs.
Harvard Medical School cites a study that shows that endurance training can restore vital signs in 50-year-old men to levels not seen by participants since they were 20.(1)
The name of the study was the Dallas Bed Rest and Training Study, and it showed that men who went through endurance training restored their heart rates, blood pressures and maximum heart pumping capacities to the levels of their youth.
Here’s why all of that is important:
A low resting heart rate indicates your heart is not having to work hard to pump blood. A healthier heart works less.
Measuring your heart rate when at rest is an indication of how efficiently your heart is working.
Most people have a resting heart rate of somewhere between 60 and 80 beats per minute, but athletes and very fit people can have a much lower one.(2)
No matter where your resting rate is now, you can lower it through exercise as demonstrated in the study.
Blood pressure affects not only the heart but the brain. Blood simply has a difficult time getting to the brain when blood pressure is high.
That’s because higher pressure is the result of resistance in the veins. Exercise lowers blood pressure and makes it easier for blood to get where it needs to go.
Your maximum heart-pumping capacity is a sign of heart strength. The higher the capacity, the stronger the heart. Exercise in the study increased this capacity.
These aren’t some vague results about “feeling better.” The results show that exercise returned vital signs to a youthful state.
Perhaps you have heard that you may live longer if you exercise.
But is there any proof of that?
It turns out there is. The New York Times reported on a study about the effects of exercise on the condition of DNA in the body.(3)
The study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, showed that the sleeves on the ends of DNA strands lengthen with exercise. This protects DNA.
Short protective telomeres, as the sleeves are called, leave the DNA vulnerable to damage. To put it simply, damaged DNA means a shorter life.
Perhaps the most significant part of the study showed that the more types of exercise people did, the greater were the chances they would have longer telomeres. That equates to longer lives.
For people over age 40, the association between a variety of exercise and longer telomeres was the strongest.
So how much longer could you live with exercise?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a daily regimen of 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise may increase your lifespan by five years.(4)
While you’re increasing your lifespan, you also cut your chances of getting diabetes and heart disease in half. Obese exercisers can offset the damage from high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
What all this means for the average person is that exercise becomes increasingly important as the years pass. It’s not just for young people.
The National Institutes of Health cites studies that demonstrate that “easy” living is hard on older people.(5) The primary reason people lose their ability to function independently is not age, but inactivity. Inactive people tend to visit the doctor or the hospital more, and they require more medicines to control illnesses.
Don’t forget that your brain is a body part. According to a study published in the Front. Psychol., Journal in 2012, you can actually help grow new brain cells by exercising.(6)
In addition, as you deliver more oxygen to the brain during exercise, you enhance the connections between the brain cells you already have.
Your exercise program will keep the brain cells healthier. All of this adds up to a way to prevent loss of brain function as you age.
In addition, working out gives you a bigger brain.
A study of 73-year-olds at the University of Edinburgh showed that even after age 70, exercise enables the brain to maintain more gray matter and white matter.(7)
In other words, there is more mass in the brains of people who exercise, including the elderly. And as an added benefit, the study participants also had fewer white matter lesions, which are associated with loss of ability to think and remember.
Also, a study at the University of Pittsburgh indicates that the hippocampus is larger among elderly participants who do aerobic exercises.(8)
The hippocampus is tied to memory.
Other types of exercise also prevent brain shrinkage. For example, the study published in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that women who lifted weights twice a week for a year had less brain shrinkage than women who didn’t exercise at all.(9)
The reason exercise helps the brain is it triggers the release of a specific protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF.
This protein promotes the growth of new neurons while preserving existing ones. It also enables the growth of new synapses – the connections between neurons that allow electrical charges to pass. In short, your brain renews many structures when you exercise.
This flies in the face of the old attitude that aging is a process of brain decline. Researchers continue to find that the brain can grow and change throughout life if people exercise.
Exercise is so effective that Dr. Clinton Wright of the University of Miami published a study in Neurology that suggests exercise slows brain aging by as much as ten years.(10)
Elderly people who participated in an outdoor exercise program had much better moods than those who did not participate. The study, published by ResearchGate, suggests that mood management may be as much a physical effort as a medicinal one.(11)
Also, people with major depressive disorder went into remission after a four-month exercise program.
The study, published by the American Psychological Association, further showed that those who maintained the exercise program for one year continued to have lower rates of depression.(12)
Getting rid of depression can improve both the quality and duration of life.
Finally, what about brain games as exercise? It turns out that brain training through challenging puzzles, riddles and problems helped older subjects improve and maintain verbal reasoning skills.
These subjects were 60 years old and older, and they outperformed non-gamers in verbal reasoning in a study by BBC and Cambridge University neuroscientists.(13)
Exercise is no longer an optional addition to your life as you age.
It is essential to your well-being, quality of life and clarity of mind. The research in this field is fairly new, but there’s no reason to wait until the benefits of exercise get fully sorted out.
Starting any kind of exercise program today, no matter your age, will improve body and mind immediately and have lasting effects.
It’s always advisable to see a doctor before beginning an exercise regimen.