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Hippocrates in 400 BC said that exercise is man’s best medicine, but his message has been lost over time and we are an increasingly sedentary society… Our findings debunk the assumption that aging automatically makes us more frail.  Professor Janet M. Lord, Institute of Inflammation and Aging, University of Birmingham, UK

Regular Exercise Virtually STOPS Aging of Muscle and Immune Systems

Earlier this year we reported that two years of exercise restores elasticity to the middle-aged heart. That was peanuts compared to the findings of British researchers on the benefits of recreational cycling over a lifetime.

In two studies, one focused on changes in the thigh muscle and the other in immune systems, they found no association between aging and deterioration. Rather they found changes to be related to the level of exercise over time. The data on muscle power and immune systems proved to be related to physical activity, irrespective of age.

Sound too good to be true? The details will make you want to take up cycling or some other form of regular exercise—and never stop.


The first study, reported March 8, 2018, in the journal Aging Cell, zeroed in on the thigh muscles of 125 highly active male and female cyclists aged 55-79 years, who had maintained training volume of about 100 miles a week. None were competitive athletes.

The muscles of the thigh are, of course, one of the primary muscle groups used in cycling. Muscle fiber markers of good health (size, strength, capillary density, mitochondria, etc.) were analyzed in relation to age. Body fat and maximum oxygen uptake were also measured.

Results were compared to two other healthy groups—aged 20 to 36, and 57 to 80, totaling 130 people in all—who were not physically active.

“We conclude in this highly active cohort, selected to mitigate most of the effects of inactivity, that there is little evidence of age-related changes in the properties of the vastus lateralis muscle across the age range studied,” the researchers wrote in summarizing their key finding. (The cyclists also did not increase their body fat or cholesterol levels with age and the men’s testosterone levels also remained high, according to a separate statement released along with the study.)

Sounds almost too good, doesn’t it? Think about the people you know. Most of them in the age range of those in the study are probably frail or headed in that direction. What we tend to forget is that only about 10 percent of people past 65 in the Western world exercise regularly. Look at the people around you the next time you go to the doctor.

The British scientists, led by Dr. Ross D. Pollock, Centre of Human and Aerospace Physiological Science, King’s College London, hypothesized that the frailness we see in our seniors is due more to sedentary living than aging. That aging doesn’t automatically make us progressively frailer. That’s what they found.

“The data support the view that high levels of exercise training are able to maintain many of the properties of muscle which are negative affected by aging when it is accompanied by sedentary behaviour,” they concluded.

We need to rethink what normal aging means. “It has been argued that being physically active is the default position required for maintaining health and physical function throughout the lifespan” the researchers wrote in introducing the study.

“Find an exercise that you enjoy in whatever environment that suits you and make a habit of physical activity,” Dr. Pollock told the media. “You will reap the rewards in later life by enjoying an independent and productive old age.”

You can read this study online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29517834

If you’re still on the fence, see what the British researchers found about fitness, aging, and immune function. It is truly inspiring.

Immune Systems

Following essentially the same format as before, the British researchers sought to assess the relative effect of aging and physical activity on immune competence. Immune competence, which governs the risk of infections and inflammatory diseases, is a key factor in our wellbeing and typically declines along with muscle function as we age.

The findings were once again published in the journal Aging Cell.

Led by Niharika Arora Duggal, Institute of Inflammation and Aging, University of Birmingham, UK, the researchers compared immune profiles in 125 highly active (cycling) adults (55-79 years) with 75 age-matched older adults and 55 young adults not involved in regular exercise.

While physical activity did not protect against all aspects of immune function, Duggal et al concluded “that many features of immunesenescence may be driven by reduced activity with age.” (Immunesenescence refers to the gradual deterioration of the immune system brought on by natural age advancement.) In short, they found that sedentary living compromises immune function.

While it’s complicated, the ramifications are huge for those of us interested in doing all we can to age long and well.  

“The immune system declines by about 2-3% a year from our 20s, which is why older people are more susceptible to infections, conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and potentially cancer,” senior author Janet Lord told BBC medical correspondent Fergus Walsh. “Because the cyclists have the immune system of a 20-year-old rather than a 70- or 80-year-old, it means they have added protection against all these issues.”

The researchers also believe that being physically active in old age will help people respond better to vaccines, and so be better protected against inflections such as flu.

Steve Harridge, co-author and professor of physiology at King’s College London, emphasized that “humans are designed to be physically active.”

The cyclists apparently agree. “Cycling 60 miles or more may not be your idea of fun, but these riders have found something that gives them pleasure, which is a key reason why they continue,” Fergus Walsh wrote after meeting with a group of the recreational cyclists in the study.

*  *  *

New York Times health and fitness writer Gretchen Reynolds brought out an important connection between the two studies. That muscle and immune function are interrelated. Muscles are one of the sources of the hormone that protects the thymus gland, which generates white blood cells that help the immune system fight illness.

“So more muscle means more of that hormone,” said Dr. Janet Lord, co-author of both studies.

Our muscles talk to every organ in the body. Exercise obviously ramps up the communication.

The entire study is available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29517845

My Take

These studies make me feel good about every minute spent exercising. The Greeks had it right. Exercise IS the best medicine. The British researchers should be honored by the Queen. Take their advice and the British health care system might actually go into the black.

It would be helpful if more participants and forms of exercise were involved, and the whole body was analyzed. That’s a tall order. And not the biggest hurdle. 

The biggest problem is persuading people to become physically active. Doctors tell people to exercise or die—and they still won’t do it.

That’s just the way it is. The most promising approach is to help motivated people help themselves.

Professor Pollock’s advice is spot on: “Find an exercise that you enjoy in whatever environment that suits you and make a habit of physical activity.”

Carol and I were biking before we were married. I was riding my bike hard 25 miles once a week when
Lovelace Medical Center measured my body fat at 2.4% for the first time. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to bike 100 miles a week.
I doubt that it’s necessary. A mix of exercises is probably more sustainable.

Photo by Denie Walter

Any form of exercise that you enjoy is good. If it overloads your body that’s better. A friend gave me a T-shirt that says, “No Challenge No Change.” That’s an undeniable principle of exercise. That and balancing stress and rest.

If you don’t enjoy pushing yourself, that’s fine too. Keep moving and you’ll be ahead of the game.

Regular exercise is the key. Find forms of physical activity you enjoy and keep doing them.

Ideally, you should do both aerobic and strength training—for your whole body. In my experience, it’s more interesting to challenge your body in different ways.

I do what I call “morning motion” first thing in the morning. I move every part in my body, from fingers to toes—and throw in some free squats at the end. I make it up as time goes by and keep changing. The last change I made is standing presses with a resistance band, which is easier on my shoulders than what I was doing before. Don’t misunderstand. I don’t overload in the morning motion. The idea is to simply get the blood and synovial fluid flowing all over my body. It’s a wonderful way to start my day. If I don’t feel so good (mentally or physically) when I start, I feel better when I finish. It gets my motor going.

I also walk about 7000 steps every day, indoors and in our neighborhood. I try to make every walk a little different, to keep it interesting. Walking makes me feel good—and more productive.

As most people know, my overload workouts are on Tuesday and Saturday. Resistance on Tuesday and intervals on Saturday. I have two versions of each, so it takes two weeks to do everything.

I sit down with my training diary before these workouts and plan how I can improve. There are many ways. Your imagination is the only limit. Progress keeps me motivated to train year after year.

That’s how I do it. Now it’s up to you to devise a training plan that will keep you training year after year.

Make REGULAR EXERCISE part of your life. As the British researchers have shown, that’s the key.

Start now—and never stop. (Or keep doing what you’re doing.) You’ll live longer and better.

September 1, 2018

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