Exercise keeps aging at bay by conserving muscle mass, strength and power, and preserving a cardiovascular system that efficiently delivers oxygen to the working muscles. But it takes an exercise regime more strenuous and consistent than that followed by the majority of 50-, 60-, 70- and 80-year-olds to maintain the body’s youthful vigor. In fact, it could be argued that the training regime of master athletes is well beyond that of most of the adult population.
Another important byproduct of such dedicated training is that masters athletes are as a group less touched by the chronic disease. So impressive is their health and fitness status, they have been almost singlehandedly responsible for the suggestion that a lack of exercise, not advancing age, is behind much of the physiological decline that affects adults over 50.
Not only are they proving it’s possible to maintain a high level of physical activity at any age, they are achieving performances that rival those posted by exercisers decades younger. It’s not unusual for marathon results to showcase a sizable percentage of runners in the 65-69 age range with faster finishing times than the majority of 20-54-year-old runners.
On the decline
But not everyone heading into their golden years has the desire to train like an athlete. So while masters athletes are perhaps the best example of successful aging, there’s no readily available cohort of fit seniors who exemplify the optimum level of health with less exercise. Nor is there an agreement among the research community as to how much exercise it takes to mediate physical decline.
Another hiccup in the drive to optimize aging is our inability to isolate the benefits of exercise from other lifestyle choices like getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods and reducing stress, all of which join exercise in contributing toward successful aging. Since we know that most physically active individuals are more likely than their sedentary peers to eat better, sleep better, be non-smokers and carry a healthier weight, it’s tough to distinguish which plays the largest role in warding off the negative effects of aging.
Finally, we need to sell the value of exercise to baby boomers and the generations that follow. If you’ve yet to be sold on exercise as the fountain of youth, maybe the promise of a better quality of life is enough to get you moving. While we’re not sure just how much exercise is enough, we do know it’s never too late to get started. Masters athletes have demonstrated the ability to improve performance well into their 80s, which means age doesn’t affect the body’s ability to adapt to exercise.
The simplest first step is to hit the goal of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week, which we already know is instrumental in reducing the risk of disease. From there, it’s simply a matter of adding a few more minutes of exercise every day until you start feeling more pep in your step.