“Exercise and nutrition are likely to be the best interventions [for aging] that we will have for a long time to come.” – Eric Verdin, Buck Institute

Coming out of the holiday season can be tough. Eating differently (or more) than what we usually do, ignoring e-mails to recharge and spending time with loved ones – or maybe now needing a recharge after time with extended family – can make it difficult to come back to “normal” life. But this is the time to think about what daily life in 2019 should look like for you, to improve your quality of life.

How about making 2019 the year that you move?

Exercise is the best tool we have for a long and healthy life. You might have heard the saying that if exercise were an anti-aging drug, it would be worth multiple billions of dollars.

“There’s no other drug that is so powerful in terms of helping to prevent so many chronic diseases,” said Dr. Eric Verdin, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. “Although researchers are now working to develop drugs that mimic some of the effects of exercise, I predict that exercise is going to be a more powerful intervention [for healthy aging] than anything we can invent, because it’s multifactorial. For example, exercise has a profound effect on your metabolism. But while you might be able to recapitulate some of this effect with small molecules, exercise also has a profound effect on bone density, your lung function and even your mental function. To put this all into one pill will be nearly impossible. Exercise and nutrition are likely to be the best interventions [for aging] that we will have for a long time to come.”

The good news is that when it comes to exercise and health, it’s never too late to start.

“Nothing is different for older adults compared to younger. They can handle it just as well and they respond to exercise just as well as younger people,” said Dr. Dorthe Stensvold, Associate Professor at the Cardiac Exercise Research Group at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. CERG is working to develop optimal training programs to preserve good health throughout life.

While we know exercise works to preserve health and prevent chronic diseases, we don’t yet know exactly how different types of fitness activities affect health and mortality in older adults. Researchers at CERG are facing this question head on: In 2012 they invited all inhabitants of Trondheim, Norway born between 1936 and 1942 to take part in an exercise study. The participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: a high intensity training group, a moderate intensity training group and a control group.

The study, appropriately named Generation100, is the largest randomized clinical study designed to evaluate the effect of exercise on morbidity and mortality in older adultsParticipants in the control group were instructed to follow the guidelines of 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day, but without any specific guidance. On the other hand, participants in the moderate training group were asked to complete 50 minutes of moderate exercise at “talking pace” twice per week. Participants in the high intensity group were asked to do 40-minute workouts twice per week. These workouts consisted of 10 minutes of warm-up followed by 4-minute high-intensity (above “talking pace”) bouts of exercise with 3 active breaks in between. The training groups were given the choice of individual training or taking part in organized exercise twice a week. In total, 1567 people are currently participating in the study.

Walking and hiking - particularly in a natural environment, are fantastic and accessible ways to increase your healthspan. Credit: FatCamera.
Walking and hiking – particularly in a natural environment, are fantastic and accessible ways to increase your healthspan. Credit: FatCamera.

The benefit of exercise as we age

Many chronic diseases that strike as we age are affected by fitness and heart function, especially cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular fitness is important for living a long and healthy life and is the strongest predictor of cardiovascular disease. In fact, high cardiovascular fitness can to some extent overcome the effect of high BMI, percent body fat or waist circumference as risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Even in people living a sedentary lifestyle that do aerobic exercise, high fitness can overcome the negative effects of sitting for long periods of time. On the other hand, being lean alone can not reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease caused by very low fitness.

Aerobic training improves cardiovascular fitness, while resistance training strengthens muscles and prevents bone loss and frailty. Exercise is also beneficial for the immune system, for your mental health and cognitive function. In fact, a higher level of physical activity or exercise is associated with improved cognitive function in older adults. Even starting exercise in old age seems to benefit cognitive function. A study by researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California found that exercise improved learning and neurogenesis (generation of new neurons) in aged mice that started exercising after living a sedentary life.

The same is true for humans: it’s never too late to start. Thankfully, fitness can be improved relatively quickly and easily, even if you have never exercised before.

Getting started

Several of the participants in Generation100 study had looked forward to a slower pace after retirement, only to discover that, after a few years with lack of activity, they started to decline very quickly. Taking part in the study became the nudge they needed to get started.

“The participants feel better,” Dr. Dorthe Stensvold said. “In both exercise groups there are people telling us how much [the intervention] has meant to them.”

Even if you have never exercised, you are not alone. Several of the participants in the Generation100 study had never exercised before the study started. In particular the high intensity training was new to many of the participants.

“Many of our participants had never run before they joined the study. Many started running for the first time well into their 70-ies,” Dorthe explained.

To get started with physical activity as an older adult (or at any age), Dorthe recommends taking time to find a form of exercise you enjoy, especially if you have never exercised before.

“It is about feeling that you are getting fitter,” Dorthe said. “Coming back to what people like to do: Find something that motivates. And if you don’t find any motivation, if you hate to exercise, then you need to look at exercise like brushing your teeth. You just have to get it done.”

Spinning is an excellent way to start, whether you go to classes or own your own spinning bike. With spinning the risk of falling is relatively low and you can easily adjust the intensity. This allows friends with very different fitness levels to exercise together, without one having to catch up to the other.

The social aspect of group exercise is welcomed by many as a way to stay motivated and make new friends. Group exercise is not for everyone, however. “About 50% of our participants preferred to exercise alone,” Dorthe said. Invest time in figuring out what kind of exercise you like, or what the people you take care of like. It is always easier to stick with something we enjoy to do.

Spinning can be a great way to get some high intensity intervals into your day, even if you don't have much time. Credit: Grady Reese.
Spinning can be a great way to get some high intensity intervals into your day, even if you don’t have much time. Credit: Grady Reese.

How much is enough?

Getting the mail. Going to the store. Gardening. Swimming. Running. Spinning. How much physical activity or exercise should you do? Guidelines for physical activity are typically not adjusted for age and are often too strict for older adults. Instead, goals for physical activity and exercise need to be based on age and current conditions.

In reality, getting the mail might be intense activity for one person and a daily chore before going to spinning class for another. Take a personalized approach that starts from your own fitness level and find what suits you. Remember, something is always better than nothing. The largest effect on your health comes as you go from no exercise to a little exercise.

It takes very little [to make a difference],” Dorthe said. “Many believe that they have to exercise very much to have an effect. So I think it’s an important message that you have to start small. Once a week is so much better than no time a week.”

If you can manage one high intensity workout per week, consisting of even just a series of 4-minute exercises, you will likely see benefits.

“Interval training is brilliant. It gets you pumped up,” Dorthe said. “A lot of people find it boring to sit on a spinning bike for a long time. But exercising for 2 x 4 minutes really hard can have the same effect as 45 minutes of moderate intensity exercise.”

High intensity is safe

What exercise is safe for an 85 year old? Is it different from what is safe for a 65 year old or a 40 year old?

Not in terms of intensity (relative to your maximum heart rate; can also be measured by how winded you are). Getting a high pulse is beneficial for almost everyone. In fact, high intensity exercise may provide larger health benefits than moderate exercise for the same amount of time.

“We train people with all kinds of diseases in both groups. It is so well documented now that getting a high pulse is not dangerous for the general population” Dorthe explained. If you have an untreated heart condition or are worried about starting high intensity exercise, you can consult your doctor before starting.

The fitness number

The Generation100 study can’t yet tell whether high or moderate intensity exercise is the best for older adults in terms of reducing morbidity and mortality. But both exercise regimens have been very positive for many in reducing risk factors of cardiovascular disease. Participants in both exercise groups of Generation100 report improvement in general well-being and mental health.

To best measure your cardiovascular fitness, you need to measure your maximum oxygen uptake. However, an easier way to do it is to use the Fitness Calculator developed by CERG. The Fitness Calculator estimates your fitness number while taking your age into account.

“Several studies have shown that fitness is the best predictor for future health, better than blood pressure or other risk factors,” Dorthe explains. “Your oxygen uptake relies on several parts of your body, so to have good fitness you need a working system.”

Do you monitor your heart rate and other biomarkers of fitness? Keep track of them with your favorite health apps - sign up now to use LIFE Extend for all of your health and fitness tracking! Lifeapps.io/apps/
Do you monitor your heart rate and other biomarkers of fitness? Keep track of them with your favorite health apps – sign up now to use LIFE Extend for all of your health and fitness tracking! Lifeapps.io/apps/

Let’s get started

This year I’ll turn 30. My fitness number should be 42 (the higher the fitness number, the better). But according to the fitness calculator my body is already 32 and my fitness number is only 41. 2018 was for me a year full of stress and lack of sleep. 2019 will bring new beginnings and yes, you know it: exercise. It’s time to move!

Are you starting a new exercise program in 2019? Let us know – comment below!