New research shows that starting early is the key to being biologically younger, but it's rarely too late to begin.
Riley has been a runner most of his life. He started racing in his early schooldays in the 1940s and even in his busiest years, working full-time as a journalist and raising four children, he ran to and from work to keep fit.
“I feel more alive when I’m running than when I do anything else,” says Riley, now 82. He believes the mantra that all of us should live by is “wear out, don’t rust out”. Despite creaky knees, the claudication in his legs that causes them to cramp, and damaged vertebrae in his back from running on hard roads in thin-soled shoes back in the 1960s before modern trainers, he keeps pounding the pavements. These days, he heads out for 40 minutes of alternate walking and running three days a week and supplements that with a series of strengthening and flexibility exercises, including a lot of single leg squats and planking, in his garage.
“It totals six hours a week over five days,” he says.
Riley admits his family think he is obsessed. “Someone did point out to me that all the hours of exercising may add up to far more than any extra lifespan. But I like the feeling of being fit. And it slows down the diminishing of your quality of life. Keeping mobile is what it’s all about.”
At his peak in the 1970s, Riley was running more than 200km a week. Even at 57, he came third in a 24-hour race in Tauranga, and he didn’t retire from racing until he was 62. He believes his continued regimen is what keeps him healthy.
“I have low blood pressure, low cholesterol and a low heart rate. The only medication I take is a statin as protection against possible blocking of my narrowed arteries. I’m convinced from my many years of experience that aerobic exercise in some form can slow the ageing process for almost everyone,” he says.
Increasingly, science is backing him. According to the latest research, lifelong fitness devotees such as Riley are biologically about 30 years younger than their chronological ages.
Measuring health benefits
Scott Trappe is the director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Indiana. He has long been focused on the effects of aerobic and strength training on people in later life.
“Between 70 and 80 is when the major decline starts to happen,” Trappe says.
Recently, he realised he had the opportunity to do something different. Thanks to the running boom of the 1970s, lifelong exercisers were ageing into the category he was most interested in.
“So, I started going to races to meet these people. They’d win the 70-plus category and I’d introduce myself. From there it snowballed, with them recruiting their training buddies for us.”
Trappe ended up with 28 people, including seven women. These weren’t elite athletes, just enthusiasts who had combined their hobby with busy careers and family lives, continuing to run, cycle or swim whenever they had the chance.
“They loved to exercise and had stuck with it their whole life. We felt this was the first opportunity to begin to quantify what some of the health benefits of that are when you are, say, 75 years old.”
For comparison, he recruited a second group of healthy, active people in their twenties and a third group of age-matched older people who weren’t involved in structured exercise programmes but were still active and engaged with life.
Tellingly, there were no sedentary participants among this age-matched group. A lifetime of inactivity had already taken too great a toll on the rejects. “Those people were super-diseased and on multiple medications,” says Trappe. “They just weren’t healthy enough to be in the study.”
It is a disturbing change Trappe has seen since he started out in ageing research. “Twenty-five years ago, when we would recruit people to do a training study, obesity wasn’t such an issue and people weren’t on so many medications. If they had good genes, then they were doing quite well. Now, we have this whole other sector of unhealthy people that are just not engaged at all. So, our older age-matched non-exercisers were still a health-elite group of people.”
Trappe brought all of them into the lab and measured their cardiovascular health. Each participant also had a muscle biopsy to examine the capillary network – the micro vessels that allow blood to flow through the muscle – and the activity of two key aerobic enzymes, all of which generally declines with age.
What he found surprised him. Looking at the muscle data, you couldn’t pick which was the young group and which was the older lifelong exercisers. “And the cardiovascular systems of the lifelong exercisers were also better than I would have predicted,” he says. “They were three decades younger in terms of overall physiology. They looked like middle-aged people.”
One of the advantages of having a bigger cardiovascular engine is it means a person has a greater reserve, meaning they can rebound more successfully from adverse life events such as periods of illness.
“There’s a sort of aerobic frailty threshold,” says Trappe. “The data is pretty clear that when you dip below this theoretical threshold, that’s the big transition between independence and dependence. Once you’re at those very low thresholds, it’s really difficult to get back above them. So, that’s a game-changer and it’s why having a reserve is key.”
Of course, exercise can hurt the body, too. “There’s no question that the pounding over the years from running is hard on a variety of skeletal functions,” says Trappe. “For most of the people in this category, the orthopaedics had let them down. But they had adapted as they went through life and found ways to keep going. Some had switched modes, so we had a lot of cyclists. Others were still running but complementing it with other forms of exercise to make up total volume.”
All of this is good news for Trappe, who, at 52, is a triathlon enthusiast, making time for regular workouts despite working long hours and having a busy family life. He manages it by cutting out other things he has realised he can do without. So, no more watching sport on TV.
“The pay-off is I get to spend more time exercising, which brings me more joy than sitting watching other people exercise. You just have to make these choices.”
Trappe is continuing to work with the same group of people. He is looking at the genetic response to exercise and how that differs as we age. And he is challenging his participants with resistance training to examine other measures such as muscle mass. The preliminary data is looking just as encouraging.
For many of us, it is too late to establish any sort of longevity of fitness. But, as Trappe’s previous research has shown, there really isn’t any point where you don’t reap some health benefits from starting on a regular fitness programme.
“Even when you get into your eighties, you still benefit, although those benefits aren’t as robust as when you’re young.”
As for the type of exercise you choose, Trappe says a mix of aerobic and strength training is ideal, but probably most important is that you enjoy whatever you do enough to want to work out for at least 30 to 45 minutes a day.
“There is no one formula that is perfect for everyone. Some are more into running, some cycling, weight training, walking, yoga or whatever. All these things are beneficial so long as you’re consistent. At the end of the day, exercise wins. It has so many positive systemic benefits.”
Among its many benefits, physical exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on brain metabolism, delaying cognitive decline. It increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain controlling short-term memory. A recent Swedish study concluded that women with high physical fitness in middle age are 88% less likely to develop dementia years later. And there is evidence that even 10 minutes of gentle exercise is enough to improve memory function.
Aerobic activity even keeps our cells young – a recent experiment by German cardiologists showed that men and women who jog or do interval training have longer telomeres in their white blood cells. Telo-meres are the caps that protect the tips of the chromosomes from damage during cell division. They shorten and fray as we age and many scientists believe telomere length is a useful measure of a cell’s functional age.
Humans are simply meant to move. We evolved as hunter-gatherers covering 9km- 14km a day to find our food. So perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that researchers now believe that a lack of fitness is worse for your long-term outlook than smoking, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Wael Jaber, a cardiologist and researcher at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, says being unfit should be treated almost as a disease. He is the senior author of a recent study in which the data of 120,000 people who had undergone treadmill stress testing was retrospectively examined. In the US, it is common to be required to take one of these tests as part of an insurance plan if you operate heavy machinery, drive trucks on highways or fly planes, so they were a mixed bag of patients, some healthy and fit, others diseased.
Patients were tracked for between three and 24 years.
“We didn’t measure the kind of exercise they were doing, how long or what type, only how fit they were on that day,” says Jaber. “And the fittest people lived the longest.
“The fitter you get, the more your risk continues to drop; you can’t be too fit according to this test. To our surprise, we found it was predictive in every age group but most predictive in the elderly and women. People who are below average fitness are dying earlier.”
Jaber sees it as almost like a retirement fund. “If you’ve been depositing in the fitness bank all along and you are fit as an older person, then you are cashing in in terms of mortality.”
Havelock North’s Riley doesn’t come from an especially long-lived family. He lost his mother at 41 to cancer and his father at 66 from pneumonia and a heart attack.
“I firmly believe that with my ordinary genes, I would either be dead or in a worn-out physical and mental state without the vigorous physical fitness routine I’ve persevered with,” he says.
As it is, Riley has a zest for life. He fits a lot into each day without getting tired and recently passed a medical to enable him to keep his driver licence, with the highest memory test score the medical centre had ever recorded for someone his age.
It takes a bit longer for him to recover from a workout and he steers clear of running and walking up steep hills, as it is too hard on his knees.
“But exercise is still a good feeling,” says Riley. “Even on a winter’s day, I go out and enjoy it.”
Gavin Riley’s fitness tips
‘A little and often’ is far better than ‘a lot infrequently’.
- Steady running is highly beneficial for developing an efficient cardiovascular system. But running isn’t for everyone. The best single form of exercise is brisk walking. If that doesn’t appeal, try swimming, aqua-jogging, cycling or gym workouts.
- Decide how many exercise sessions you’re prepared to do a week and make them become a habit, like cleaning your teeth.
- Try not to miss a planned session. One missed session will not mean any loss of fitness, but if not backed by a good reason, will represent a defeat of attitude. One missed session can easily lead to another, and another.
- Document your exercise schedule and your workouts in a diary. It’s amazing how doing so will keep you honest, as well as being a record of your progress if you decide to increase your workload over time. My current training diary goes back to 1994.
- Keeping physically fit involves an outpouring of physical energy. Yet achieving physical fitness is entirely a mental matter – where the mind leads resolutely, the body has to follow.
- Work out frequently, and don’t overdo it in any one session. “A little and often” is far better than “a lot infrequently”.
- Even if you’re well into retirement, don’t shrink from vigorous exercise. In searching the internet for advice on how much running I should be doing at 80-plus, I found none. But I did find this commonsense encouragement from a sports-minded doctor: “If a well-loved form of exercise does provoke sudden death in an 80-year-old, this is a more pleasant end than many alternative ways of dying.”
This article was first published in the February 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.