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November 6, 2017

Aging & Exercise

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“Aging is one of the great mysteries of life and science…. Scientists remain uncertain about how and why our bodies change as we age and to what extent such changes are inevitable or mutable.”[1]

Each year we get a little older. Some years, we may feel we’ve “aged” more than others. And while some might find it cliché to say that age is just a number, there actually may be some truth to that, particularly when it comes to recent findings that demonstrate how simple changes to our type of physical activity can dramatically alter our overall health and experience of aging.

As a recent piece on exercise and aging explains, “The toll that aging takes on a body extends all the way down to the cellular level.” As we age, our ability to regenerate deteriorated or damaged cells decreases, resulting in reduced energy and muscular vigor. And while we know that exercise is good for human beings in general, until recently scientists had very little understanding of exercise’s “cellular impacts and how those might vary by activity and the age of the exerciser.” But that has begun to change with studies such as this, which demonstrate that exercise can literally reverse aging’s presentation in our bodies and thus overall wellness.

The study found that, of the biopsied muscle cells of the older subjects who exercised with interval training “almost 400 genes were working differently now, compared with 33 for the weight lifters and only 19 for the moderate exercisers.” Findings like this are impressive, because they indicate not only that exercise—particularly if it involves high-intensity interval training (HIIT)—reverses the decline in cellular health of muscles associated with aging, but that older people’s cells “responded in some ways more robustly to intense exercise than the cells of the young did.” A bonus of HIIT exercise’s efficacy is that it doesn’t take much time, since it requires only brief intense bursts of activity punctuated by periods of lower intensity, so it’s easy to incorporate into your day, from squeezing it in during the 20-minute break you take in your workday or the small window of time you may have between waking up and heading to your office.

The implication for people in midlife and beyond in particular is significant—as we face the physiological changes associated with aging, there are simple steps we can take to stay healthier, more energetic, longer. Incorporating HIIT exercise a few times per week may really allow us to finally claim that age is just a number.

[1] Reynolds, Gretchen. “Age Like a Former Athlete.” New York Times. 23 Aug 2017.

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