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“Activity is far more important than age in determining fitness level—and an active 50-year-old can be every bit as fit as a sedentary 20-year-old.” Ulrik Wisloff, PhD, Center for Sports and Physical Activity Research, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (Science Daily, October 11, 2011)

Exercise Overcomes 30 Years of Aging—Intensity More Important than Duration

Norwegian researchers have produced what may be the most important evidence so far of the power of exercise to combat aging and preserve health. They used the world’s largest fitness database. Stian Thoresen Aspense was awarded his PhD for his study of 4631 healthy volunteers who underwent laboratory examination to measure VO2peak and record their cardiovascular risk factors. The participants were also given an activity index score, based on exercise frequency, duration, and intensity.  

Other studies have come to similar conclusions, but they used indirect measurements of fitness or were based on small populations. Aspense, principle investigator Dr. Ulrik Wisloff, and their colleagues used direct measurement of VO2peak to assess the association with aging and cardiovascular risk factors. “These data represent the largest reference material of objectively measured VO2peak in healthy men and women 20-90 years,” the researchers wrote.

Science Daily tells us that the underpinnings of the Aspense-Wisloff research go back to a 1965 study conducted in Dallas, Texas, which highlighted the devastating effect of inactivity. Science Daily calls it “one of the most famous fitness studies of all time.” The Dallas researchers selected five healthy 20-year-olds to spend three weeks in bed. Predictably, they lost fitness—VO2max dropped by a huge 27 percent. The biggest surprise, however, came 30 years later, when researchers retested these same men.

“Time had not been so charitable to these men,” Science Daily wrote. Their body fat had doubled—they’d gained over 50 pounds on average—and they were far from fit. Their peak oxygen uptake, however, had dropped by only 11 percent as compared to their 20-year-old healthy selves. Thirty years of aging decreased their fitness less than half as much as three weeks in bed.

The Norwegian researchers went beyond the Dallas findings, according to Science Daily. They reversed the process--substituting activity for inactivity--and showed that exercise can stop the decline in fitness that typically comes with aging. They found that fit 50-year olds can be as fit as 20-year olds who don’t exercise. “VO2peak in inactive participants aged 20-29 was nearly identical with that of highly active participants 50-59 years,” Aspense-Wisloff et al wrote.

The question, then, becomes what kind of exercise worked best. When the Norwegian researchers looked at the importance of intensity versus duration, intensity was far more important than duration in determining peak oxygen uptake, according to information provided by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Science Daily was also told that the Norwegian researchers had looked at the benefits of high intensity interval training, and found that this form of training is a quick and effective way to increase overall fitness.

Fitness and Risk Factors

Aspense-Wisloff et al also observed that both men and women benefited healthwise from above average fitness levels. The figures are somewhat different for men and women, however. Why is not explained.

“Women below median VO2peak (<35.1 ml kg min) were five times and men below median (<44.2 ml kg min) were eight times more likely to have a cluster of cardiovascular risk factors compared to those in the highest quartile of VO2peak,” Aspense-Wisloff et al wrote. “In a similar analyses, we found that each 5-ml kg min lower VO2peak corresponded to 54% higher odds for cardiovascular risk factor clustering in men and 58% higher odds in women.”  

Exercise pays dividends in health as well as fitness. “Physical condition is the most important factor in describing an individual’s overall health, almost like a report card,” Stian Thoresen Aspense told Science Daily.

The Aspense-Wisloff study is reported in the August, 2011, issue of the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

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Keep in mind that these findings are statistical averages. Wonderful and encouraging as they are, enthusiastic lifetime trainers are likely to benefit even more.

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