Consistent exercise throughout one’s life is the key to healthy ageing, according to new research. Published on Thursday as two papers in the journal Aging Cell, the study found that a lifetime of regular exercise has significant health benefits in older age, including maintaining muscle mass and preventing immune system decline.
While other studies have shown regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing health problems such as cardiovascular disease in older age, the new findings show that consistent exercise can have even more benefits than was thought.
Researchers at the University of Birmingham and King’s College London recruited a group of 125 long-distance cyclists between the ages of 55 to 79. They compared the cyclists with a group of healthy adults in approximately the same age range, as well as with a group of healthy young people between the ages of 20 and 36.
After conducting a series of laboratory tests, researchers found that the group of cyclists had stronger immune systems, more muscle mass and lower cholesterol levels than the group of adults that did not regularly exercise.
In their paper, researchers write that they observed “significant differences” in the frequency of T-cells between adults over the age of 55 that regularly exercised and those that did not. T-cells are crucial for immune function, and humans tend to produce fewer of them as they age. Not only did the cyclists produce more T-cells than the adults who were not consistently physically active, they also produced as many T-cells as the group of younger people studied.
“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,” Professor Janet Lord, director of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Inflammation and Ageing, told the BBC. “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 tests also showed the group of cyclists did not experience a loss in muscle mass or strength, nor did they experience an increase in body fat, as many individuals do as they get older. The researchers therefore say their findings suggest regular exercise can minimise some of the effects commonly associated with ageing.
“Our findings debunk the assumption that ageing automatically makes us more frail,” said Professor Lord. “Our research means we now have strong evidence that encouraging people to commit to regular exercise throughout their lives is a viable solution to the problem that we are living longer but not healthier.”
Commenting on the group of cyclists studied, Stephen Harridge, study co-author and professor at King’s College London said, “Their bodies have been allowed to age optimally, free from the problems usually caused by inactivity. Remove the activity and their health would likely deteriorate.”
Researchers encouraged people to make physical activity a priority, and said that their skill level should not deter them from making a bigger effort to be active.
“Most of us who exercise have nowhere near the physiological capacities of elite athletes, said Professor Norman Lazarus of King’s College London, who co-authored the research, and Dr Ross Pollock, also of King’s College London. “We exercise mainly to enjoy ourselves. Nearly everybody can partake in an exercise that is in keeping with their own physiological capabilities.”
In addition to protecting against infections, researchers believe that consistent exercise in old age will also make vaccines more effective for people. They hope to conduct additional studies with the same group of cyclists to learn more about how exercise can combat some of the effects of ageing.