Exercise is your best insurance for enjoying a longer healthspan.
We hear more and more about the adverse effects of a sedentary lifestyle. For decades, the desk was the center of work culture, and it still is to some extent. Computers and mobile phones keep us glued to large and small screens alike, and with the wide array of entertainment content options available these days, it is easy to become that quintessential “couch potato” without even realizing it. Many influences pull us toward inertia so it takes a conscious effort to get up and move, which we are learning is really the best thing for us. Our bodies were designed to move—if our ancient ancestors had sat in one place instead of hunting and gathering—none of us would be here today.
While we frequently hear “sitting is the new smoking,” this popular quip does not capture the full extent of the far-reaching negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Conversely and more positively, exercise has one of the most profound impacts—if not the most—on our healthspan and longevity.
If you are looking for a bit of motivation, consider these facts proven and replicated across numerous studies. Exercise improves:
- Metabolic health (weight control and insulin sensitivity)
- Cardiovascular health (reduces the risk of heart disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure)
- Cognitive function (mood and motivation, may offset dementia and increase neuroplasticity: i.e., the building of new brain cells, and sleep)
- Bone and muscle strength
- Improved libido
- Reduction of certain cancer risks
- Longevity (and how well) you will live.
Now, have I got your attention? If there was one wonder drug for longevity, it would be exercise. Even better, it is free and fully under your control. As the Nike slogan so aptly said, “Just Do It.” Herein lies the challenge—it takes determination, time, and effort on our part.
WHAT EXERCISE SHOULD I DO?
People frequently ask what exercise they should do. There are varying opinions answering this question, too many to mention here. Too, it depends on age, current physical fitness condition, pre-existing medical conditions, and injuries. Success also depends on choosing activities you will enjoy and stay with. Generally accepted, recommended federal guidelines are “150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity (walking, running, swimming, biking), or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or a mix of both. Twice-weekly resistance training to strengthen muscles is also recommended.”
How do you measure up? If you are not currently meeting these minimums, do not feel bad—you have company with 80 percent of Americans. But if you care about your health and potential longevity, these recommendations are a warning call to become more active and up your game.
Lauren Elson, M.D., an editorial advisory board member at Harvard Health Publishing, noted in her blog post a few years back “how different types of exercise have complementary benefits:
Aerobic activity, like walking, running, or cycling, improves cardiovascular health. It involves movement of the large muscles of the body for sustained periods of time.
Muscle-strengthening activity, like resistance training with elastic bands or weightlifting, improves muscle strength, endurance, power, and mass.
Bone-strengthening activity, like running, playing basketball, resistance training, or jumping rope, improves bone health and strength.
Balance activity, like walking backwards, standing on one leg, yoga, and tai chi, can reduce fall risk.
Multicomponent physical activity, like running, dancing, or playing tennis includes at least two of the above types of activity.”
Not that the others aren’t important, but aerobic exercise and muscle resistance training may hold the most important keys to building the foundation for longevity. Let’s first talk about muscle mass.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MUSCLE MASS AND STRENGTH AS WE AGE
In his book, Outlive, Peter Attia, M.D., cites a 10-year observational study of 4,500 subjects aged 50 and older that “found those with low muscle mass were at a 40-to-50% greater risk of mortality than controls.” One study he cites indicated that strength training “may even trump cardiorespiratory (aerobic) fitness.”
Why is muscle mass so important for healthy longevity? Muscles do not just make us look good or hold our structure. They do so much more. We are just beginning to appreciate and understand the role they play in so many functions of the body. They are our powerhouse.
Unfortunately, we can begin to lose muscle mass even in our thirties, and the loss continues to creep up on us silently at a rate of as much as 8 percent to 17 percent with each ensuing decade if we are not careful. Over time, this accumulation results in the loss of skeletal muscle mass and function and can become sarcopenia which is also strongly associated with frailty syndrome. The activities of daily living then become difficult and impact independence. A higher frailty index is associated with higher mortality risk and incident disability, particularly falls—which is the leading cause of accidental death in older adults.
Frailty compounds as we age through bouts of illness requiring bedrest, particularly if there are surgeries or hospitalizations during which we incur extended disuse of our bodies and muscles. If you have ever seen a cast removed from a friend’s arm or leg or your own, you realize it does not take long for muscles to atrophy. Younger people can build and recover muscle more quickly, but for older adults, it is the beginning of a downward spiral. As we age, it is key to build up muscle reserves in the event we wind up in such an acute situation as well as to offset the muscle decline of aging.
Strength or resistance training is the best way to accomplish building muscle. Both muscle mass and muscle strength are important. Citing that same study, Attia states “further analysis revealed that it’s not mere muscle mass that matters but the strength of those muscles, their ability to generate force.” He further cites Andy Galpin, one of the foremost authorities on strength and performance work who concluded that “we lose muscle strength about two-to-three times more quickly than we lose muscle mass. And we lose power (strength X speed) two-to-three times faster than we lose strength.”
CARDIORESPIRATORY EXERCISE: HOW MUCH DO WE REALLY NEED?
Views about aerobic exercise vary more than about resistance training, perhaps because it is not as straightforward and more difficult to measure and compare benefits and outcomes in studies across such a wide array of activities. One thing all experts seem to agree on, though, is that everyone can benefit.
How much is too much? Does lighter movement count? How many steps are enough? Does intensity matter? Can we do too much? How do we measure it? These are frequent questions, and they are difficult to generally quantify.
Besides the obvious metrics like how many miles, how fast, heart rate, etc. that can easily be measured by fitness trackers, you can measure and use VO2 max as a training metric. VO2 which is the maximum rate you can consume oxygen, indicates your peak aerobic capacity. This metric has been strongly correlated with longevity. If your score is in the lowest quartile, it can impact your longevity by as much as 50 percent. It’s not a pleasant test, as it’s a bike or treadmill test wearing a mask and doing the exercise to your “fail” point at which you can’t go any further. It may not be a test if you are a beginner exerciser, have a heart condition or high blood pressure. Like muscle mass VO2 max can decline up to 10 percent per decade and as much as 15 percent per decade after age 50. The higher your starting baseline, the better off you will be in your older years. It is never too late to start training to improve your VO2 max. Even elderly adults can improve their VO2 max with consistent training.
It seems everyone is obsessed with tracking daily steps. But how many do we really need? The science is not settled, but a large study published in 2019 had interesting results. The study by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as reviewed in the New York Times found “Those men and women accumulating at least 7,000 daily steps when they joined the study were about 50 percent less likely to have died since than those who took fewer than 7,000 steps, and the mortality risks continued to drop as people’s step totals rose, reaching as high as 70 percent less chance of early death among those taking more than 9,000 steps. (However,) people taking more than 10,000 steps per day, even plenty more, rarely outlived those taking at least 7,000.” Amanda Paluch, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who led the study concluded, “There was a point of diminishing returns …”
The 10,000 steps per day is likely an arbitrary number perhaps derived from the Japanese word for pedometers “sold in Japan since the 1960s, manpo-kei, which translates to “10,000-step meter”—a number apparently chosen in part because the Japanese character for it looks like a walking man.”
Another more recent study in 2021 undertaken by Lee, Shiroma, and Matthews of more than 16,000 female volunteers with an average age of 72 found “More steps taken per day are associated with lower mortality rates until approximately 7500 steps/d.” There is still much study needed on steps as a metric, such as whether intensity and speed matter for longevity.
A well-rounded exercise program should also address stability, flexibility, and mobility. Before beginning any new exercise program, it is important to get a physical and input from your physician. Regardless of your age, if you care about your healthspan and longevity, it is never too late to start. Join a gym or hire a trainer, choose a sport you will enjoy, and work a little harder so you can enjoy life and independence into your old age.
Lydia is a passionate advocate of healthy living. She has launched and positioned many health and wellness-related companies, products, technologies and organizations receiving more than 100 awards nationally and internationally.
Her focus in the health sector is specifically on healthy living, aging and longevity. She is a partner and investor in several recognized national brands. She sits on the board of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging whose mission is to eliminate the threat of age-related disease for today’s and future generations. It is the only independent research organization globally dedicated to extending the healthy years of life. Like the scientists at the Buck, Graham envisions it will be possible for people to enjoy life at 95 as much as at 25. To support Buck’s mission, please visit www.buckinstitute.org.