Aging can be a huge blow to vanity: the body weakens, the skin wrinkles, the hair falls out. But exercise can have a major impact on how well we age—both inside and out. “If you create a solid foundation of fitness, you can completely change what your senior years are like,” says Dr. Susan Ryan, osteopathic physician and sports medicine expert who practices emergency medicine in Denver, Colo.
Maintaining flexibility, preventing injury and building up muscle mass will help you keep your independence and functionality as you age. And there’s more than your autonomy at stake. By reducing the risks of diseases—cardiovascular issues, obesity and stroke—exercise will in effect extend your life span, says Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, Ph.D, a physician and professor of pediatrics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
What happens to your body as you age essentially boils down to sarcopenia, the progressive loss of muscle mass. Dozens of studies show that after age 40, adults typically lose roughly 8 percent of their muscle mass and range of motion each decade, a process that accelerates drastically once people hit their 70s.
The good news is that the culprit may be linked to the sedentary lifestyle associated with aging, and not necessarily aging itself. Several studies, in fact, suggest that consistent resistance training exercise can reverse aging.
In a 2011 study led by Tarnopolsy and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, exercise was shown to significantly reduce virtually all detrimental effects of aging in a strain of mice that had been genetically programmed to grow old faster. In another of Tarnopolsky’s studies, published in 2007 in PLoS ONE, strength training twice a week over the course of six months reversed—by an impressive third—the genetic imprint of aging in elderly people.
The exercise, Tarnopolsky says, “inhibited the gene mutation that determines aging and effectively ‘youthened’ the muscle by about 20 years. A 65- year-old was showing similar muscular blueprint as a 45-year-old, and the same 20-year age reversal was apparent in 85-year-olds as well.”
Mix it up
“From a physiologically adaptive perspective,” says Tarnopolsky, “exercise is crucial. But weight training or endurance training alone is not the way to go.” While endurance training, which consists of walking, swimming, running and cycling, repairs cell function and protects against cardiovascular risk, resistance training delivers the best way to combat muscle loss. One study published in Acta Physiologica Scandinavica in 1990 showed that in terms of muscle mass, endurance athletes were no stronger than the sedentary. The non-negotiable take-home: The body needs both and strength training to circumvent the downward spiral that comes with age.
No time like now
Ideally, the time to build fitness is in youth, but both Tarnopolsky and Ryan emphasize that it’s never too late to start working out. Many older people fear that they will cause more damage to their bodies by exercising, but only very strenuous exercise causes oxidative stress that’s injurious, Tarnopolsky says.
If you don’t have a consistent exercise routine in place, overcome your reluctance to start one. “Begin wherever you are,” says Ryan. For senior citizens, she stresses making the ability to function independently the goal. “Treating fitness proactively keeps you out of wheelchairs and nursing homes, and ultimately preserves your dignity.” Her motto—start small and build.
Tarnopolsky adds this compelling tip: “New research published in the Annual Review of Public Health suggests that the first half hour of exercise matters the most, in the sense that the most benefits are accrued. Anyone can find 30 minutes to get out and be active, no matter how busy they are.” The most surprising aspect of his recent research, he says, “is the favorable effect exercise has on all aspects of physical health.” In other words, exercise doesn’t just help your muscles and heart. It staves off aging’s overall shrinkage effect by keeping your brain, eyes, skin, hair and even your testicles or ovaries pleasingly robust.