If you want to live longer and be healthy, you should exercise regularly. Or at least that’s what we’re told. Constant physical activity is one of the hallmarks of the so-called Blue Zones; areas where there more people live past a century than anywhere else. And if you ask anyone over 100 years what’s their secret to life, it will include being active.
We know that exercise can prevent the onset of disease and early death, but can it add years to your life? What about quality years of life? It’s fine to live a longer time, but if you spend most of that time sick and in hospital, is that such a trade-off?
Over the past hundred years, global life expectancy has increased remarkably, having nearly doubled in all regions of the world. At the same time, however, automation has thrived and the amount of physical activity people get today is actually much less than 100 years ago when people died at an earlier age. So less activity is better?
Much of this increase in life expectancy is due to advances in access to healthy nutrition and health care. And while life expectancy has increased, the number of years living with illness and disability has gone up slightly. We are living longer, and having a healthier living period but we haven’t made a dent in avoiding disability the last few years of life. And if things don’t change, the number of years of disability will increase.
A Return on Investment to Live Longer
Exercise takes time, no doubt about it. A lack of time is one of the biggest reasons people give for not being active. Fifty plus years ago it wasn’t as hard because we could be active through our work. Bus conductors, who walked up and down the bus collecting tickets, had a lower chance of getting heart disease and dying compared to drivers. But there are no bus conductors anymore. Or very many other active jobs out there.
If you’re not getting your activity at work, that means getting it from some other time during your day. It’s possible to do what I call ‘stealth exercise’ and make use of your exercise to do other activities at the same time. However, that’s not always possible. So where are you left then? Taking up your leisure time to exercise?
If you’re worried about having too little time, then yes, you actually should be exercising. With the extra years of life you get from exercising, you’ll likely get back the time you put into exercise. And more.
The biggest gains from exercise come from doing nothing, to doing a little. Being active (such as brisk walking) for only 75 minutes per week results in another 1. 8 years of life. This is only half of what the guidelines suggest.
Let’s say you start exercising at age 40 years 75 minutes per week. Say you live until 80 including the extra 1.8 years extended life. You would have spent about 108 days exercising, but you gain 657. For every one minute of exercise you get six minutes back in extended life. All of us would love to get the same return on our financial investments.
Ramping your activity up to >450 minutes per week (about an hour per day), you get an extra 4.5 years. More than one study has suggested this. And while all activity is good for you, it appears that moderate activity, such as brisk walking, may add more years to your life compared to slower walking.
Picture by:Janka [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
Reverse the Ageing Clock with Exercise
Numerous lab studies have given us clues as to how exercise can reverse ageing. At a cellular level, regular exercise prevents the changes commonly associated with ageing. Men and women in their 70s who were lifelong exercisers, had similar muscle metabolism and blood flow compared to exercisers in their 20s. And exercise is one of the only things that strengthens and preserves muscle.
Ageing is accompanied by damage to our DNA. With age, DNA damage increases. This damage is also associated with increased chance of getting diseases such as cancer. While our body is equipped with DNA repair systems, these are not able to keep up later in life. However, people who exercise have less DNA damage than non-exercisers at the same age.
But DNA is not the end all and be all. Even if you have a certain gene, it may not matter, as modifications to your genes can determine whether they are turned on (active) or off (inactive). These modifications can also be inherited and this area of research is called epigenetics. These DNA modifications are also associated with ageing but also your environment. For example, whether you exercise can determine which genes are active and which are not. It’s believed that these changes work to prevent the ageing process.
And how your DNA is packaged is also relevant. DNA is packed into chromosomes, which are capped off by telomeres. The telomeres are made up of non-functioning DNA meant to protect your chromosomes from degrading. With each division of our cells, telomeres shorten. So telomeres get shorter with age.
When telomeres get too short, damage may occur to our DNA. However, people who exercise tend to have longer telomeres. Regular exercise was estimated this amounted to nearly nine years of prevented ageing compared to low amounts. And within six months of starting an exercise program of two hours per week resulted in lengthening of telomeres, as well as improving telomere activity.
So if you’re worried that your don’t have time to exercise, think of it more as a small deposit in time now for a huge return later on.
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