With more of us living well into our 80s than ever before, it's good to know that old age does not have to equate to decrepitude. Exercise, in particular, has amazing benefits to offer when it comes to living to a happy, healthy old age.
More of us living in the UK can look forward to a long life than ever before. There are over 10 million people aged over 65 in the UK at the moment, and by 2050 that figure is projected to rise to 19 million. We can expect to live to an average of 80 years.
So is this a cause for celebration or anxiety? Are you looking forward to a healthy, happy, active old age that gives you time to pursue lifelong interests and have fun? Or do you dread physical and mental decline and a loss of independence? Fortunately, this is not just a matter of luck. There is a lot you can do to ensure that you enjoy optimum health into your 70s and beyond. Exercise, in particular, has been associated both with increased longevity and a greater quality of life into old age.
How does exercise lead to a healthy old age?
We're continuously bombarded with information about the latest anti-ageing products, whether they come in the form of fancy cosmetics or outlandish food supplements. Most of these have dubious efficacy. Exercise is an exception in this context – it really does slow down the ageing process. We're talking about the normal side effects of growing older here, rather than any pathological processes – that is, the general decline in cardiovascular and respiratory capacity, the loss of elasticity from body tissue, the slowing down of the nervous system, and so on. You cannot get around any of these processes entirely, but regular exercise can slow them down and counteract them to some extent. Here are some specific examples of how this occurs.
Exercise protects against cellular ageing
Ageing occurs at a cellular level. Every single cell in our bodies is subject to it. Every cell contains mitochondria, tiny organelles that basically function as power generators for the cell. Mitochondria have their own separate DNA, which, like any DNA, is subject to genetic mutations. These are usually corrected by the cell's repair systems, but with increasing age this process becomes less efficient, and when the mutations accumulate the mitochondria start to malfunction and die. It is thought that the loss and malfunction of mitochondria is a major factor that underlies the ageing process in humans. Amazingly, exercise counteracts this process. In experiments conducted on lab mice, it's been shown that mice who exercise develop fewer mutations and retain more healthy mitochondria than sedentary mice. It is not known exactly how exercise does this and more research remains to be done, but it's incredible to think that a half-hour run could affect the very substance of your cells, isn't it?
Exercise sharpens your brain
A certain amount of cognitive decline is to be expected as part of the normal ageing process. Our processing speed generally slows down, we're less able to multi-task, and memory functions aren't what they used to be. That's all perfectly normal. When pathology creeps in, you see various dementias such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's. Exercise can help to counteract not only the normal decline of mental faculties but to protect against the sort of pathology that might affect the brain as well. In the case of the former, the effect appears to be due to greater blood flow to the brain and the release of neurotransmitters during exercise that boost brain function. As for the latter, it's not known exactly how exercise achieves its protective effect, but the association between regular exercise and decreased risk of all sorts of dementias is a strong one.
Exercise improves your mood
A decline in mental health is not an inevitable part of the normal ageing process, but it is a common phenomenon. It might occur because of a number of factors, such as social isolation, coping with various physical health problems, and facing adverse life events that become more common as we grow older, such as bereavement and job loss. Whatever the cause, there is no denying that older age is often associated with increased risk of anxiety and depression, as well as the sort of low mood that is not necessarily clinically significant but does lower quality of life. Good news, then, that exercise boosts mood levels not only in the immediate aftermath – think of that happy post-workout rush – but also over time and in the long term. It supports the body's capacity to deal with stressful events at a biochemical level and improves the level of “happy chemicals” - neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, associated with pleasure and even euphoria – in our bloodstream.
Exercise strengthens your immune system
As we age, we are more vulnerable to all sorts of infectious diseases. What might be brushed off as a winter cold in our twenties can become a risk factor for developing pneumonia in our eighties. Regular exercise counteracts this vulnerability by boosting the immune system, making its responses to threats faster and stronger.
Exercise protects against chronic disease
There's no getting around it: The older you are, the more at risk you are of chronic, life-limiting or life-threatening diseases and health conditions. Think of heart disease, high blood pressure, most types of cancer, and diabetes. Then there are diseases that might not actually threaten your life but can reduce its quality considerably, such as arthritis. The good news is that all of these conditions respond well to exercise. Regular exercise can both prevent you succumbing to them in the first place, and ease the symptoms of any diseases already present.
Lay down some good habits today and reap the benefits in decades to come.