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A Healthy Curiosity: Is exercise ageing?

March 24th 2015 / Peta Bee

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Peta Bee investigates the claim that workouts cause wrinkles and proves once and for all that when it comes to your health there is no excuse not to get those trainers on…

Non-exercisers have long claimed that a workout habit is a fast route to ageing, leaving you undeniably fitter, but more wrinkled and crippled in the process. Don’t listen to them. Scientists have amassed reams of evidence that confirms we should keep wearing our Lululemon leggings and Nike Frees and working out for as long as we can if we want to hold back the years.

In the latest trial looking at the positive effects of exercising on ageing, researchers at Kings College London found that active people in their 70s are as fit as those in their 50s. In their study of cyclists they analysed data on measures commonly linked to ageing such as aerobic fitness, resting heart rate, breathing ability and muscle density but discovered little difference between people aged 79 and those aged 55 if they maintained similar levels of exercise. “By exercising you do what your body wants it to do and are allowing it to age optimally,” said Professor Stephen Harridge who led the study. “So it is not ageing itself which brings about poor function and frailty, but the fact that people have stopped exercising and are no longer active.”

In fact, exercise can halt the ageing process of everything form your joints and bones to your mind. Here’s how:

Muscles

Scrawny arms and legs are among the most obvious signs of ageing. From the mid-30s onwards, muscle mass is lost from the body at a rate of about one pound a year and as the years roll by, it becomes harder to keep muscles toned. A 2011 study published in the journal Sport Medicine looked at the effects of weight training on ageing muscles. Researchers noticed that many effects of ageing were reversed and that the strength workouts increased insulin sensitivity, lowering the risk of Type 2 diabetes, and reduced pain and inflammation from arthritis.

Strength training becomes more and more important as you get older, says personal trainer Julia Buckley, author of The Fat Burn Revolution (Bloomsbury). “Preventing muscle loss through weight training not only gives you a better shape,” she says. “It reduces injury risk, lessens aches and pains, aids mobility and agility and boosts your metabolism so that you get rid of surplus fat more quickly.”

Skin

For all the scare stories that exercise causes wrinkles, scientists have actually found otherwise. Last year, a study at McMaster University in Ontario Regular reported that, among regular runners and cyclists aged 65 plus, their outer and inner skin layers both resembled what scientists would typically expect to see in healthy 20- to 40-year-olds. In other words, they looked younger. Subjects in their forties had skin biopsies expected in those half their age. Three years previously, scientists at the Saarland University Clinic in Germany looking at cell life spans of experienced middle-aged runners versus couch potatoes noted how much younger the joggers looked. Dr Christian Werner, the author, described the difference in youthfulness as “startling”.

Joints

Too much exercise has been blamed for wrecking joints in later life with running, in particular, regarded as public enemy number one to the knees. Should you cut down to prevent accelerated ageing of your joints? Not according to the latest science that suggests exercise can actually help to keep joints youthful. As part of a long-term study called the Osteoarthritis Initiative, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas looked at exercise habits and knee x-rays of 2,683 participants with an average age of 64. They found that 22.8 per cent of runners had knee osteoarthritis, compared to 29.8 per cent of those who had never run for fitness.

"Non-elite running at any time in life does not appear detrimental, and may be protective," in regards to developing knee osteoarthritis, was the conclusion. Why? Experts think one reason could be a shorter ground contact time when you run which results in less overall force on the knee over a given distance compared to walking. A previous study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise found runners had roughly half the incidence of knee osteoarthritis and pain as walkers. Consistency is crucial, says Sammy Margo, a spokesperson for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists. “Regular exercise strengthens the muscles and ligaments around joints,” she says. “Life-long runners have better joint health than those who dip in and out of the sport.”

MORE GLOSS: 12 ways to stay motivated to keep fit

Heart and lungs

If you want to keep your cardiovascular system ticking over as efficiently as a twenty-year-old’s, then exercise is key. German researchers found that intensive, HIIT-style workouts had a positive effect at cellular level that could help to protect against ageing of the heart and lungs, they said. In the trial, they compared the heart and lungs of long-term serious exercisers with those not committed to the gym. Results, published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, revealed markers in the blood cells of the exercisers that were clear signs of a more youthful aerobic system. “Staying fit is the best way to ward off the ravages of ageing and to keep your heart healthy,” says John Brewer, professor of applied sport science at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

Bones

One in three women will suffer from the bone thinning disease osteoporosis later in life. But those who continue to workout in their 30s and 40s are far less likely to fall foul of the condition. “Any kind of weight bearing exercise can boost bone mass,” says Brewer. “Running, jumping and weight training will all have a positive effect.” A study in Finland last year showed that high impact circuit training or sports like tennis, football and hockey that involve some jumping and sharp change of direction are particularly good bone-boosters. Daily skipping, a few star jumps or a brisk walk have also been shown to prevent bones from ageing.

Mind

Just one hour’s exercise a week can reduce the chance of degenerative brain conditions like Alzheimer’s disease by almost half, according to a landmark study by Cambridge University researchers last year. Those who didn’t achieve three 20-minute bursts of vigorous exercise per week, such as jogging or football, or five 30-minute sessions of moderate activity, such as walking were 82 per cent more likely to go on to develop dementia.

Gym workouts can also boost brain power. Dr Teresa Liu-Ambrose of the University of British Columbia asked 155 older women to follow either a resistance training programme involving weights, squats and lunges, done once or twice weekly, or a toning and balance workout done twice a week. After a year, she found that the strength-training group displayed better memory and decision making in a series of tests, even if they had reduced weights workouts to once a week. The other group showed no improvements in brain power.

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