It has long been known that staying active throughout life is essential for maintaining good health even during the twilight years. Researchers at the University of Birmingham and King’s College London have reaffirmed that staying active keeps the body young and healthy. They set out to assess the health of older adults who had exercised most of their adult lives to see if this could slow down ageing. The study recruited 125 amateur cyclists’ aged 55 to 79, comprising 84 males and 41 females. The men had to be able to cycle 100km in under 6.5 hours, while the women had to be able to cycle 60km in 5.5 hours. Smokers, heavy drinkers and those with high blood pressure or other health conditions were excluded.
The participants underwent a series of tests in the laboratory and were compared to a group of adults who do not partake in regular physical activity. This group consisted of 75 healthy people aged 57 to 80 and 55 healthy young adults aged 20 to 36. The study showed that loss of muscle mass and strength did not occur in those who exercise regularly. The cyclists also did not increase their body fat or cholesterol levels with age and the men’s testosterone levels also remained high, suggesting that they may have avoided most of the male menopause. More surprisingly, the study also revealed that the benefits of exercise extend beyond muscle as the cyclists also had an immune system that did not seem to have aged either.
An organ called the thymus, which makes immune cells called T cells, starts to shrink from the age of 20 and makes less T cells. In this study, however, the cyclists’ thymuses were making as many T cells as those of a young person. Professor Janet Lord, director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham, said: “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.”
Professor Stephen Harridge, director of the Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences at King’s College London, said: “The findings emphasise the fact that the cyclists do not exercise because they are healthy, but that they are healthy because they have been exercising for such a large proportion of their lives. Their bodies have been allowed to age optimally, free from the problems usually caused by inactivity. Remove the activity and their health would likely deteriorate.” The researchers hope to continue to assess the cyclists to see if they continue to cycle and stay young. The research was published in the journal Aging Cell.
The take home message from the study is that nearly everybody can partake in an exercise that is in keeping with their own physiological capabilities. Find an exercise that you enjoy in whatever environment that suits you and make a habit of physical activity. You will reap the rewards in later life by enjoying an independent and productive old age.
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