It can be hard to find the time or motivation to exercise. With office jobs and cars, many of us do not engage in physical activity on a regular basis. However, researchers from the University of Birmingham and King’s College London have found another incentive to get moving. They found the secret to youth; regularly exercising seniors had younger and healthier bodies than healthy seniors that did not exercise.

The researchers recruited 125 amateur cyclists aged 55 to 79 (84 males and 41 females) who had exercised most of their adult lives. The criteria: the men needed to be able to cycle 100 km in 6.5 hours or less, while the women needed to be able to cycle 60 km in 5.5 hours. Those who smoked, drank heavily, with high blood pressure, or other medical conditions were not included in the study.

To act as controls, 75 healthy adults aged 57 to 80 and 55 healthy adults aged 20 to 36 who did not regularly exercise were also recruited to the study. All participants underwent a series of tests in the lab.

Image credits: University of Birmingham.

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Those individuals who had exercised regularly had several important benefits. They did not lose muscle mass or strength and their body fat and cholesterol levels hadn’t risen. The results may be particularly attractive to men because the regular exercisers still had high levels of testosterone, meaning that they were able to avoid most of male menopause. That is not all; the senior cyclists had immune systems in a great condition. The thymus is an organ that produces immune cells called T cells. From age 20 onward, the thymus usually starts shrinking and producing fewer T cells. However, the regular exercisers had T cell levels similar to a young person.

All in all, exercise is a lifestyle choice that seems to affect quality of life decades down the road. Not to mention that exercise boasts loads of other benefits, such as controlling weight, improving mood, boosting energy, reducing chance for cardiovascular diseases, and so on. Currently, less than half of seniors over 65 years of age exercise enough to stay healthy. Perhaps related, more than half of over 65-ers suffer from at least two diseases. These health problems could perhaps be avoided by regular exercise from adulthood.

“Hippocrates in 400 BC said that exercise is man’s best medicine, but his message has been lost over time and we are an increasingly sedentary society. However, importantly, our findings debunk the assumption that ageing automatically makes us more frail. Our research means we now have strong evidence that encouraging people to commit to regular exercise throughout their lives is a viable solution to the problem that we are living longer but not healthier,” said Professor Janet Lord, Director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham.

Old age and disease do not need to go hand-in-hand. This is a causal study, but indicates that good health can follow regular exercise. The takeaway here is that anyone can exercise by finding something that they can enjoy, whether it be swimming, cross-country skiing, dancing, or yoga. There are many options with different levels of impact and difficulty so you can really find what suits you. The benefits of exercise are real (we have not evolved for a sedentary lifestyle like a sloth), and if there is a chance to be healthier and active at an older age while doing activities that I enjoy—sign me up!

Journal references:

  1. Pollock et al (2018). ‘Properties of the vastus lateralis muscle in relation to age and physiological function in master cyclists aged 55 – 79 years’. Aging Cell.
  2. Duggal et al (2018). ‘Major features of Immunesenescence, including Thymic atrophy, are ameliorated by high levels of physical activity in adulthood.’ Aging Cell.