From The Desk Of Clarence Bass
“Because most of the population is largely sedentary, the tendency is to assume
that inactivity is the inevitable condition for humans. However, given that
How Exercise Keeps Us Young: The Details
Age is just a number IF you exercise, according to a study of serious older cyclists by King’s College London and the University of Birmingham: Journal of Physiology, January 6, 2015. Some functions do wane. Still, even there, exercise makes a huge difference. (Gretchen Reynolds reported on the study in the WSJ.)
What makes the study stand out is that the men (84) and women (41) participants (aged 55 to 79) had to be able to cycle 100 km (62 miles) in under 6.5 hours and 60 km (37 miles) in 5.5 hours, respectively. Unwell people and those with unhealthy habits were also excluded.
Another gateway test for participants was the Timed Up and Go Test, where you stand up from a chair, walk about 10 feet, turn, walk back and sit down again. Taking more than 15 seconds to complete the maneuver indicates frailty. Even the oldest participants fell well below that level with an average time of 5.6 seconds, which is well within the norm reported for healthy young adults.
On the other end of the spectrum, elite athletes were excluded to ensure that any associations between age and function would not be driven by simply having high performing young individuals at one extreme and poorly performing elderly individuals at the other. In short, the study focused on average people who cycle with enthusiasm.
These standards allowed the researchers to examine functional aging unburdened by inactivity and other confounding factors. What they found is extremely encouraging for highly active people.
We’ll look at the key details—and then explore how to achieve even better results.
Very comprehensive, the study looked at numerous aspects of functional aging.
Once selected, subjects underwent two days of laboratory testing. For each participant, a physiological profile was established which included measures of cardiovascular, respiratory, neuromuscular, metabolic, endocrine and cognitive functions, bone strength, and health and well-being. Reflexes, muscle strength, oxygen uptake during exercise and peak explosive cycling power were also determined.
That laid the groundwork for an in-depth assessment of function and aging. Which is the overriding factor, age or physical activity? If a particular test result was similar for participating cyclists of all ages, then it would appear that the function is primarily driven by practice, rather than age.
“As it turned out, the cyclists did not show their age,” Gretchen Reynolds reported. “On almost all measures, their physical functioning remained fairly stable across the decades and was much closer to that of young adults than of people their age. As a group, even the oldest cyclists had younger people’s levels of balance, reflexes, metabolic health and memory ability.”
The researchers concluded: “…Despite studying a large number and diverse range of indices, it was not possible to identify a physiological marker that could be used to reliably predict the age of a given individual…The biological ageing process, even when free from confounding factors, is thus likely to be highly individualistic…”
We have far more control over how we age than is generally assumed. Sedentary behavior is arguably the most debilitating of all factors, including aging. “Our hypothesis is that the evolutionary history of humans mandates that the default condition for a healthy human is a lifestyle in which exercise is integral,” the researchers wrote.
Nevertheless, significant associations between age and function were observed. The maximal rate of oxygen consumption (VO2max) showed the closest association with age, but even here the variance in age for any given level was high, precluding the clear identification of the age of any individual. The oldest cyclists also had less muscle power than the youngest cyclists. Still, the effects of aging were far from obvious. People of different ages could have similar levels of function such as muscle strength, lung power, and exercise capacity.
Age does seem to reduce our endurance and strength to some extent, senior author Stephen Harridge told Gretchen Reynolds, even if we exercise. Be that as it may, the oldest cyclists were well ahead of their sedentary age-group peers on both measures.
Some specific results and author commentary help to define and explain the findings. As usual, it’s more complex than it might at first appear.
Cognitive function, health and well-being: The effects of aging on cognitive function was assessed using two different tests. “Efficiency of information processing declined with age in both sexes. [However], there was no effect of age on speed of information processing or animal naming.”
The relatively high levels of physiological function observed were also reflected in markers of health and well-being. “Sleep quality improved with age in males only. In contrast, self-reported physical health declined with age in females but not males. The remaining health and well-being measures showed no age-related change.”
Both self-reported mental and physical scores were higher than would typically be expected in the general population, “possibly due to the beneficial effect exercise has on physical function.”
Testosterone: “Testosterone levels are typically 10-fold higher in males than females a finding supported in the current study. An age-related decline in testosterone levels in men, known as the andropause, has been reported, but interestingly was not apparent in our results. Exercise training in sedentary older men can increase testosterone levels, and therefore the exercise status of the current subjects may have preserved testosterone levels into old age. Crucially, this suggests that previously reported declines in testosterone with age may also be related to declining activity levels.” (Emphasis added)
Age and aerobic capacity (VO2max): The results suggest a loss of 10 and 15 percent in aerobic capacity per decade in males and females, respectively. Again, all indices measured failed to reach the power required to be used as a predictive marker of age.
Neuromuscular performance: “There is no denying the effect of age on neuromuscular performance, as evidenced by the declines in strength, power and athletic performance in highly trained elite master power athletes such as weightlifters and sprinters. This is further demonstrated in the current study, where even though activity levels were high and constant across the age range, reductions in both maximum isometric knee extensor strength and the peak power obtained during sprint cycling were apparent. However, the values for both knee extensor strength and peak cycling power are superior to those previously reported for similarly aged individuals.”
Skeletal muscle: “Skeletal muscle is sensitive to both mechanical and metabolic signals and, perhaps more than any other tissue, to physical inactivity. This suggests that the well-documented declines in neuromuscular performance with age would be highly influenced by sedentary behavior.” (See suggestions below)
“Other things being equal, muscle function is related to size.”
“No association between skeletal muscle mass and age was found in males or females.” (Perhaps not surprising, considering that endurance cyclists are not known for muscle mass, especially in the upper body. The researchers acknowledged that cycling provides relatively low loads to the body; see below)
Other functions: “Handgrip strength…was associated with age in men, but was not statistically so in women.” (Keep in mind that handgrip strength is rarely challenged in cycling.)
“There appears to be a minimal effect of age on balance, although in the male subjects eyes closed balance did show a weak association with age.” (Balance is, of course, a major factor in cycling.)
Bottom line: Emeritus Professor Norman Lazarus, a member of the research team and also a cyclist: "Inevitably, our bodies will experience some decline with age, but staying physically active can buy you extra years of function compared to sedentary people. Cycling not only keeps you mentally alert, but requires the vigorous use of many of the body's key systems, such as your muscles, heart and lungs which you need for maintaining health and for reducing the risks associated with numerous diseases."
That raises the question whether other—or additional—forms of exercise would have done a better job of maintaining overall body function. In my opinion, yes, absolutely.
* * *
Cycling was well suited for the Kings College study, but individuals have far more—and better—options. Revealingly, a number of the subjects in the study were found to be suffering from sarcopenia (dangerously low muscle mass) and others had low bone density, which the researcher ascribed to “the relatively low loads applied to the skeleton during this type of exercise.” Only the specific muscles, bones, and tissues challenged by cycling garnered benefits.
First, cyclists would perform better—maintaining and increasing strength and endurance—by adding leg presses to their training regimen. Li Wang and colleagues showed that doing hard leg presses at the end of an hour of steady state cycling developed twice as many mitochondria as cycling alone; see my book Take Charge (page 58) for further details. The explanation is simple. Cycling affected mostly slow-twitch muscle fibers. Leg presses brought in the fast fibers, doubling the overall response. Unused and untrained muscle fibers wither and die over time. Use it and keep it.
Resistance training for the whole body would add more strength, muscle mass, and endurance.
Training the upper body might not improve cycling performance, but it would build and maintain more muscle mass, which communicates with the rest of the body and encourages healing, slow aging of the arteries and aging in general, reduces morbidity and mortality, and promotes better health; see Muscle Talk http://www.cbass.com/MuscleTalk.htm
Whole body training develops both strength and endurance all over the body. Exercise cycles with push-pull arm action train both the arms and the legs; the Schwinn Airdyne is an example. Combining the Concept 2 rower and Ski Erg also trains practically the entire body. There are many more options, of course. Do what you enjoy and do best. But do it for your whole body.
A wide variety of training—strength and endurance—stressing the entire body builds and preserves physiological function throughout life. Take the lead from the King’s College researchers—and improve upon it. People will be scratching their heads trying to guess your age. GO FOR IT!
If you want to look like this (left) at 43 and this (right) at 70 you have to train your whole body. Photos by Bill Reynolds and Laszlo Bencze.
Remembering Bill Reynolds GO
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