Staying Highly Fit Slows Signs of Aging
Older people who are highly fit, such as recreational cyclists, are physiologically more similar to young people than to more sedentary seniors. That’s the conclusion of a new British study that sought to explore the effect of physical activity on key indicators of aging. As one scientist put it, “Being physically active makes your body function on the inside more like a young person’s.”
Published in The Journal of Physiology, the study recruited 85 men and 41 women, ages 55 to 79, who were serious recreational cyclists. Participants were put through a battery of physical and cognitive tests, with results compared against standard benchmarks of normal aging. On most of the tests, the highly fit cyclists performed more like young adults. Even participants in their 70s scored decades “younger” in metabolic health, balance, memory and reflexes.
Roger A. Fielding, PhD, director of Tufts’ HNRCA Nutrition, Exercise, Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory, comments, “We have known for a long time that regular exercise can reverse some of the age-related declines in aerobic fitness and muscle strength, and preserve physical functioning. This study reinforces this concept and highlights that lifelong regular exercise can sustain these improvements.”
Typical of the cyclists’ youthful performance were their scores on a standard test called Timed Up and Go. The test times how long it takes someone to stand up from a chair without using his arms, briskly walk 10 feet, turn, walk back and sit down again. Older adults considered on the edge of frailty might take 9 or 10 seconds to perform the test, while a typical score for a healthy senior is 7 seconds. But even the oldest cyclists in the study whipped through the test in an average of 5 seconds—“well within the norm reported for healthy young adults.”
Fitness couldn’t slow the aging clock for every physiological measure, however. Compared to cyclists in their 50s and early 60s, participants in their 70s had lower overall aerobic capacity and less muscle mass and muscular power. But those scores were still better than what would be viewed as average for their age.