How does exercise influence the way you age?
We all know that exercise is good for us in many ways. Through exercise we can improve the way we feel, the way we look, our energy levels, heart and lung health, resilience to stress and so much more.
The way we age is no different, and can also be influenced by our levels of activity. Studies show that physical activity is correlated to a reduction in obesity and weight gain; type 2 diabetes; coronary heart disease; and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Physical activity is consistently associated with improved cognitive function, better health and ultimately a longer lifespan. Overall exercise increases the likelihood of living a healthy life in our older years.
Whilst we know that strength training (e.g. yoga, pilates, using weights) improves bone density and muscle strength, and cardiovascular exercise (e.g. brisk walking, running, cycling, swimming) improves heart and lung health, there is no clear winner in terms of which exercise best impacts the way we age at a cellular level.
Sixteen studies show moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise and cardiovascular fitness slow the cellular ageing process in middle age to older adults through increased telomere length. However, other studies found the type of exercise to be less relevant. When compared to sedentary people, active people had longer telomeres regardless of the intensity of exercise
Telomeres are protective caps that protect the end of our chromosomes, and their length reduces as we age. Shortening of telomeres is considered one of the Nine Hallmarks of aging.
If exercise has always been part of your life and is who you are, chances are that it will remain so in some way, shape or form throughout your lifetime. For those of us whose exercise levels fluctuate, there are certainly some inspirational athletes out there who show us that it is never too late to start. Fauja Singh, known by some as the ‘Turbaned Tornado’, ran his first marathon at the age of 89 and continued to run marathons until the age of 101! New York sprinter, Ida Keeling, only started running at 67 and has no intention of giving up at 104!
There are many people in their 60s that are fitter than some in their 30s and 40s. Conversely, often our energy levels, mobility and strength decline as we age. So what can we do to age better? As the studies show, regular movement and activity contributes to good health, and the earlier we start, the better. Although you may not be the next Turbaned Tornado, you can make incremental changes to positively impact the way you age.
It is best to pace yourself when starting a new exercise regime and to build in sufficient rest time in between exercise to allow recovery time. Because studies show that sudden changes to our exercise habits can cause an increase in DNA damage. Everyone’s capacity for physical activity is different but going from no exercise to high intensity exercise can lead to excess oxidative stress and cellular damage.
If you are not sure where to start to increase your activity levels, don’t forget that any movement counts – gardening, household chores, walking to the shops are all included. Picking an activity you enjoy increases your chances of sticking to a new exercise regime.
You may want to consider seeking some support to find the right choice for you and keep that motivation going. Especially for people with medical conditions impacting their exercise choices. Maybe tag along with a friend to a local class or find a personal trainer to give you some pointers. You may also be able to get a Green Prescription from your GP – this free service is where your health practitioner provides written advice on physical activity that will support your health and wellbeing.
Suzy Walsh BBA (Hons)., BNat., mNMHNZ is a Registered Naturopath & Medical Herbalist
 Daskalopoulou, C., Stubbs, B., Kralj, C., Koukounari, A., Prince, M., & Prina, A. (2017). Physical activity and healthy ageing: A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal cohort studies. Ageing Research Reviews, 38, 6-17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.arr.2017.06.003
 Marques, A., Gouveira, É. R., Peralta, M., Martins, J., Venturini, J., Henriques-Neto, D., & Sarmento, H. (2020). Cardiorespiratory fitness and telomere length: A systematic review. Journal of Sports Sciences, 38(14), 1690-1697. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2020.1754739
 Lin, X., Zhou, J., & Dong, B. (2019). Effect of different levels of exercise on telomere length: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 51(7), 473-478. https://doi.org/10.2340/16501977-2560
 Tryfidou, D. V., McClean, C., Nikolaidis, M. G., & Davison, G. W. (2019). DNA damage following acute aerobic exercise: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 50(1), 103-127. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-019-01181-y