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Lifelong Exercise Slows Aging


Heart, Lungs, and Muscles of Fit Seniors 30 Years Younger

Ball State University Human Performance Laboratory in Vanguard of Growing Area of Study

I’ve been learning about the benefits of lifelong exercise (LLE) since high school. It started with the writing of Bob Hoffman, the publisher of Strength & Health magazine—my mother complained that I thought exercise cured everything—and grew with time.

I read about the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in the pages of Runner’s World.

I was among many who eagerly awaited George Sheehan’s monthly column. Sheehan is my all-time favorite fitness writer—The New York Times christened him the country’s "greatest philosopher of sport." A cardiologist and accomplished runner, Sheehan often cited the work of Professor David Costill, an exercise physiologist who headed up the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University. Now 82 and a professor emeritus, Costill is enjoying the benefits of over 60 years of continuous exercise—running and then swimming. He told Patti Neighmond, a writer for NPR’s Your Health, that he has always known about the health benefits of exercise and has been committed since high school. “If I’m out with a group of my peers, guys who are near 80, and we’re going someplace, it seems to me they’re all walking at half speed.”

Costill is delighted by the findings of current day researchers at Ball State University Human Performance Laboratory involving the health of people who got caught up in the aerobics boom of the 1970s and never stopped exercising.

Another exercise physiologist who won’t be surprised is Joseph F. Signorile, PhD, who wrote in his book Bending the Aging Curve (2011) that the regular exerciser will have a neuromuscular function curve that begins at a much higher level—and stays there. At 90, the lifelong trainer is at a level equivalent to an untrained person 30 years younger. https://www.cbass.com/BendingTheAgingCurve.htm

LLE Wins Over Aging

Leader Scott Trappe and ten colleagues at the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University examined men (21) and women (7) 70 to 79 years of age who had been exercising regularly for the past 50 years. They found them to have the heart, lung, and muscle fitness of healthy nonexercisers (10 men and 10 women) at least 30 years younger. They also compared the LLEs to young exercisers (10 men and 10 women).

LLE men were further divided based on intensity and competitive status: performance (14) and fitness (7) groups.

On average, the LLE group exercised 5 days a week for 7 hours a week over the past 52 years. They had a lifelong history of structured exercise. The nonexercisers may have played an occasional game of golf or taken a leisurely walk from time to time, but no structured exercise.

The young exercisers worked out with the same frequency and total time as the lifelong exercisers.

Each subject performed a cycle test to measure the maximum amount of oxygen they can use during intense exercise and assess their aerobic endurance.

A thigh muscle biopsy was also take and examined in the lab to gauge their micro vessels, or capillaries, which allow blood to flow through the muscle itself.

Finally, they looked at specific enzymes that provide fuel to the working muscles and help break down carbohydrate and fats.

“In summary, these data show a substantial V̇o2max benefit with LLE that tracked similarly between the sexes, with further enhancement in performance-trained men. For skeletal muscle, 50+ years of aerobic exercise fully preserved capillarization and aerobic enzymes, regardless of intensity. These data suggest that skeletal muscle metabolic fitness may be easier to maintain with lifelong aerobic exercise than more central aspects of the cardiovascular system.”

Talking big picture, the researchers added: “Lifelong exercise (LLE) is a relatively new and evolving area of study with information especially limited in women and individuals with varying exercise intensity habits. These data show a substantial maximal oxygen consumption benefit with LLE that tracked similarly between the sexes. Our findings contribute to the very limited skeletal muscle biopsy data from LLE women (>70 yr.), and similar to men, revealed a preserved metabolic phenotype [the interaction of genotype with environment] comparable to young exercisers.”

*  *  *

Exercise wins is the take-home message,” lead researcher Scott Trappe told NPR’s Patti Neighmond.

"Lifelong exercisers had a cardiovascular system that looked 30 years younger," says Trappe. This is noteworthy because, for the average adult, the ability to process oxygen declines by about 10 percent per decade after age 30.

"It's kind of a slow decay over time that's probably not so noticeable in your 30s or 40s," says Trappe, but eventually as years go on, becomes apparent. You get out of breath more easily and don’t feel up to every day challenges.

Maintaining a strong heart and lung system has been shown to decrease the risk of multiple chronic diseases, mortality and loss of independence.

As for muscle health, the findings were even more significant, says Trappe. The Ball State researchers were surprised to find the 75-year-old muscles of lifelong exercisers were about the same as the muscles of the 25-year-olds. "If I showed you the muscle data that we have, you wouldn't know it was from an older individual. You would think it's from somebody that's a young exerciser," he says.

Trappe says the findings are clear: 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day may be the key to a healthy life. But you don't have to run marathons or compete in cycling events. "If you want to do 30 to 45 minutes of walking a day, the amount of health benefit you are going to get is going to be significant and substantial," he says. "Will it equal the person training for competitive performances? No. But it will outdo the couch potato."

*  *  *

The researchers end their report by calling for further investigation of the amazing benefits of lifelong exercise.

The abstract is available online: https://www.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/japplphysiol.00174.2018 

You’ll have to pay to read the entire study.

My Take

Imagine what the benefits would’ve been if the exercise boom of the 1970s had combined aerobic and resistance training.

For many years, aerobic exercise was thought to be practically synonymous with good health. Weight training or bodybuilding was considered mainly cosmetic. That began to change with the publication of Biomarkers (Simon & Schuster, 1991) by William Evans, PhD, and Irwin H. Rosenberg, MD, professors of nutrition and medicine, respectively, at Tufts University.

To paraphrase Satchel Paige, the ageless baseball pitcher, biomarkers are those things that tell how old you would be “if you didn’t know how old you was.”  In Biomarkers, Evans and Rosenberg isolated the following signposts of vitality that can be altered for the better by changes in lifestyle:

1)   Muscle Mass

2)   Strength

3)   Basal Metabolic Rate

4)   Body Fat Percentage

5)   Aerobic Capacity

6)   Blood-sugar Tolerance

7)   Cholesterol/HDL Ratio

8)   Blood Pressure

9)   Bone density

10) Ability to regulate Internal Temperature

Significantly, all 10 biomarkers can be revived or improved through strength training.

To help people understand how strength training affects the biomarkers, the authors coined the term “sarcopenia” to describe an ailment that affects many old people and deprives them of their independence. “Sarco” refers to flesh, “penia” means a reduction in amount. So sarcopenia describes an overall weakening of the body caused by a change in body composition in favor of fat and at the expense of muscle.

Evan and Rosenberg said that the first biomarker, muscle mass, is responsible for the vitality of your whole physiological apparatus. Muscle mass and strength, the second signpost, are our primary biomarkers. They’re the lead dominoes, so to speak. When they start to topple, the other biomarkers soon follow. On the other hand, when muscle mass and strength are maintained, the other indicia are likewise maintained. That is where strength training comes to our aid. Aerobic exercise and diet are important, but strength training, according to the authors, is pivotal if you want to stay young longer.

The bottom line of Biomarkers is that a combination of aerobic exercise and strength training is the best strategy for retarding—even reversing—the effects of aging on the 10 biomarkers.



Muscle Mass after 55 Years of Strength Training          

Photos by Pat Berrett

*  *  *

Fast forward to the present day, and we have an invited article by Richard A. Winett, PhD, and Aaron M. Ogletree, PhD, online in advance of publication July 26, 2019, in the journal Innovation in Aging. The article title speaks volumes: “Evidence-Based, High-Intensity Exercise, and Physical Activity for Compressing Morbidity in Older Adults.”

Like Professor David Costill, Winett has been exercising regularly for over 60 years. The difference is that his training transitioned from lifting weights, to running, to high-intensity intervals, and finally a combination of resistance training, quality nutrition, and some form of aerobic training—a more detailed version of the Biomarkers prescription.

Dr. Winett had to cope with warnings that lifting weights would make him muscle bound, and might even cause a heart attack. Shortly after that he succumbed to the “Aerobics Revolution” and began running 40 miles a week—along with resistance training two or three times a week. Eventually, he stopped running and took up high-intensity interval training, likely too hard and too long, on various aerobic training pieces. Eventually, his work as a health researcher—and a lifetime of exercise—brought him to what he sees as the dawn of the “Resistance Training Revolution.”

Winett and Ogletree summarize the practical application of their research as follows:

A growing research base has shown the critical role of cardiorespiratory fitness and strength for reducing the risk of morbidity and premature death in lab-based settings for older adults. This research provides a viable basis for exercise programs by showing that brief, higher intensity interval, sprint, and resistance trainings can be performed two to three times per week with minimal equipment and are effective for improving cardiometabolic health and strength while also improving cognitive and affective functioning. Such exercises are associated with minimal adverse events and are not perceived as aversive by participants. This developing research base can be the foundation for a range of programs for older adults in community settings and at home.

A key insight is that resistance bands provide an inexpensive, portable, and effective form of resistance training. Like running or walking for aerobic exercise, resistance bands put strength training within reach of virtually everyone.

You can read the entire article online: https://academic.oup.com/innovateage/article/3/2/igz020/5537999

November 1, 2019

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