Quirks and Quarks·Bob McDonald's Blog

Exercise is the best anti-aging therapy

New research shows more evidence that high levels of exercise - even in seniors - can reduce some of the effects of aging.
A new study of older cyclists shows that intense exercise into your senior years can provide anti-aging benefits. (Pixabay)

A new study in England on older cyclists found that a lifetime of regular exercise gave them the physique of much younger people, providing evidence that physical activity can beat a medicine cabinet full of anti-aging products.

The multi-billion dollar anti-aging industry provides a cornucopia of products that promise to fight off the ravages of time with special food supplements, diets, creams, oxygenated water and a host of gadgets that supposedly remove toxins from the body. It makes it sound like all we need to do is pop a pill and our lives will be extended.

And when our bodies do begin to slow down and diseases creep in, another huge industry of pharmaceuticals and therapies take over to fight it off. Our aging society is spending a lot of money trying to fight off old age. But the cheapest and oldest therapy for an aging body is good old exercise. Sadly it's the one prescription many people are not taking.

The British study looked at 125 amateur cyclists aged 55 to 79, with 41 of them being female. These were serious cyclists who participate in non-competitive long distance events, and who could ride at least 100 km in under 6.5 hours, for the men, and 60 km in under 5.5 hours for women. This is well above the daily exercise recommended for the average person, but the scientists wanted to see how far the effects of high levels of exercise can reach into old age.

The cyclists were compared to a group of adults in the same age range who did not exercise regularly, as well as young adults aged 20 to 36. Smokers and heavy drinkers were not included.

A new study of older cyclists shows that intense exercise into senior years, can provide anti-aging benefits. (Bertrand Savard/CBC)
In laboratory tests, the active seniors were found to have retained muscle mass, and had lower cholesterol levels, which is to be expected. Surprisingly, some parts of their immune systems were as robust as those of the younger people. In normal aging, the body's production of T-cells, which are the immune system's soldiers who patrol through the blood and fight off invaders, can slow down. That didn't happen in these active seniors. Of course a healthy immune system provides better protection against disease. The men in the group also showed a robust levels of testosterone, which also tends to decline with age.

This experiment was unusual, in that it looked at the positive effects of exercise on healthy individuals, rather than more common studies that look at the ill effects of sedentary life. And it underlined the benefits to older folks in fighting off some of the particular declines of old age. But really, it's just one more sign that exercise is a powerful path to better health.

The health benefits of regular exercise for the general population are well known.

With the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week, you can control weight, improve sleep, lighten your mood, boost your energy level and even improve your sex life. You'll also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and even some forms of cancer.

According to the Statistics Canada, only about one in five Canadian adults reaches that 150 minute recommended target, and the stats are much worse for older age groups than younger. The World Health Organization says inactivity a major cause of premature deaths. In fact, if you look at the instructions on many health products, there is often the phrase, "when combined with regular exercise..."

That weekly exercise does not necessarily mean you need to join a gym or sign up for a marathon. It can be easily incorporated into everyday life by giving up elevators and escalators in favour of stairs. Choose your feet over wheels as much as possible and when you do walk, make it brisk rather than just ambling along. The benefits of getting off your butt are clear, and best of all, the cost can be mostly free.

Of course, here I am writing this blog sitting at a computer.

Looks like a nice day for a bike ride…


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.