A recent New York Times article entitled “How Exercise Keeps Us Young” prompted me to write this post.
Those of us who are thinking about getting older may find the whole topic discouraging. There seem to be very few cultural models of successful aging (other than not doing it).
The New York Times article summarizes a study that appeared in January 2015 in The Journal of Physiology.
The study looked at a sample of very physically active older adults (men and women) of different ages (55 to 79). The men had to be able to ride at least 62 miles in six and a half hours and the women 37 miles in five and a half hours.
They then looked at many many tests of endocrine function, speed of reactions, muscle strength, aerobic capacity, memory and intellectual functioning, etc., to see which of these tests was correlated with age, including insulin resistance, muscle mass, mVO2, cardiovascular functioning, bone strength, and a host of cognitive functions.
There were only two changes that seemed to correlate with age to any significant degree: muscle mass and aerobic capacity.
As the New York Times article reported, citing the senior author of the paper, ‘”Aging does seem to reduce our endurance and strength to some extent,’ Dr. Harridge said, ‘even if we exercise.’ But even so, both of those measures were higher among the oldest cyclists than would be considered average among people aged 70 or above.”
You might think that this article fits into the fanciful notion that we can avoid aging. I take it instead as an example of how, as we age, certain things become very important. And one of those things is vigorous aerobic exercise.
If we are fanatical about exercise we may be able to stay healthy through much of older age.
Some of you reading this article are likely to think, ‘that’s fine but how could I ever get to that level of activity?’
Indeed aging makes it harder to be aerobic. Injuries are more common. And physical illness gets in the way as well.
However one of the features of aging is a greater capacity to commit to action and to follow through with that commitment. Many young people find it hard to stay focused. Often with age there is the acquiring of a certain wisdom; a greater ability to identify what is most important.
I am confident that almost every one of you reading this article, if you are an older adult, has the capacity to move significantly in the direction of greater daily physical activity and exercise. One step at a time. When it is hard and when it is easy…
And if you do you might see me out on my bicycle in the early morning or late evening…
For more on this topic
Pollock RD, Carter S, Velloso CP, Duggal NA, Lord JM, Lazarus NR, Harridge SD. An investigation into the relationship between age and physiological function in highly active older adults. J Physiol. 2015 Feb 1;593(3):657-80; discussion 680. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2014.282863. Epub 2015 Jan 6. PubMed PMID: 25565071; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4324712.