Being physically active is often thought as an essential element of a healthy lifestyle. Going to the gym, doing a yoga class, walking the dog. All these activities add up to feeling a sense of well-being.
Practicing a healthy lifestyle is like compound interest. The benefits are appreciated in the later years of our lives. The research below may just nudge us towards keeping an active lifestyle
1. Maximizing a life lived in good health
Most us have been given an immense privilege. The potential of living a long life. Being able to live into our 80s and 90s is a high probability associated with modern lifespans. However, the lifestyle habits we adopt will affect what those last few years of our old age will look like. The pinnacle of healthy ageing is a vision of improved health outcomes throughout the life cycle. The compression of morbidity hypothesis surmises that older people who have a healthy lifestyle will not only live longer but will also experience fewer years lived with a disability than older people who do not have a healthy lifestyle. By stretching out the years lived in good health, the number of years lived in disability can be squeezed into the shortest timeframe possible.
2. Keep your own joints
With ease, you can probably count on both hands the number of people you know who have had a knee or hip replacement. Despite the cost, period of infirmity and the fact that its major surgery, joint replacements have become the norm of modern day ageing. However, the Runners Study showed that this doesn’t have to be the case. The study tracked regular runners with non-runners over a 21-year period. The study purposed that physically active older people compared to inactive older people would have longer lives and greatly postpone the onset of disabilities. The study’s results did, in fact, show that runners postponed disabilities by 12 years compared to non-runners and most significantly showed that runners also had fewer knee and hip replacements. Incentive enough to hit the trail.
3. Youthful Immunity
Keeping up your cardio levels can have other health benefits. High levels of vigorous physical activity throughout middle and old age has also been shown to have an effect on immunity. Previous longitudinal studies have shown that immunity declines with age. As such it has now been a predetermined conclusion that this is a natural aspect of growing old. An assumption that with old age, our immunity will be compromised, our pro-inflammatory markers will increase and in turn, we will become susceptible to age-related diseases and mortality. However, these previous studies’ participants have mostly been comprised of sedentary older people. Again, an assumption of old age; when we get older we become less active. However, research looking at master cyclists may have debunked these assumptions.
This study compared the immunity levels of highly physically active older people (older male cyclists who can cycle 100km in less than 6.5 hours and older female cyclists who can cycle 60km in 5.5 hours) to inactive older people and younger people. Interestingly the cyclists’ immunity markers were equal to that of the younger participants. The results of the study showed that maintaining high levels of physical activity can protect us against immunity decline associated with age. The most intriguing interpretation of the results is that the phenomenon of immunity decreasing with age may say more about our sedentary modern lifestyles and less about the physiological factors of ageing. A compromised immunity may be a product of external factors and not internal occurrences in an ageing body. This theory challenges assumptions which reinforce ageism in the health sciences.
4. Maintaining muscles
A truth which cannot be ignored is that we are all going to lose muscle mass the older we get. Sarcopenia is the term used to describe the loss of skeletal muscle mass. After the age of 40, there is a progressive decline in the volume of muscle mass. However, accompanying the reduction in muscle mass is the reduction in motor units. Motor units are the communication points from the nerves to the muscle fibres. A recent study compared the motor unit size in sarcopenic vs non-sarcopenic participants. Compared to the muscle mass of the young participants, the healthy older non-sarcopenic men had 8% decrease, the pre-sarcopenic had 30% and the sarcopenic men had 44% reduced muscle mass.
Losing muscle mass and motor units is a natural process of ageing. The significance of this study is not per se illustrating the loss of muscle mass, but rather highlighting the capacity of the remaining motor units. Since the loss of motor units is also inevitable, the emphasis of the study is on prevention. Maintaining our muscle strength as we age appears to stimulate the remaining motor units. The motor units of stronger muscles are able to expand and sprout new branches to muscle fibres which have lost communication from nerves and in turn preserve the mass of those muscles. Significantly this study showed that advanced old age did not make a difference between the non, pre and sarcopenic participants.
The strength of the muscles outweighs the age of the muscles.
Motivation to keep moving…
While walking the dog makes an improvement on our sense of well-being, putting on your running shoes or clipping into your bike pedals and powering those legs, will, in the long run, increase the years in which you live in good health.
A worthy investment for our golden years.
 Fries, J. F. (2002). Aging, natural death, and the compression of morbidity. The New England Journal of Medicine, 303(3), 245–250.
 Hubert, H. B., & Fries, J. F. (2017). Postponed development of disability in elderly runners. Archives of Internal Medicine, 162, 2285–2294.
 Duggal, N. A., Pollock, R. D., Lazarus, N. R., Harridge, S., & Lord, J. M. (2018). Major features of immunesenescence, including reduced thymic output, are ameliorated by high levels of physical activity in adulthood. Aging Cell, 17(2). http://doi.org/10.1111/acel.12750
 Piasecki, M., Ireland, A., Piasecki, J., Stashuk, D. W., Swiecicka, A., Rutter, M. K., … McPhee, J. S. (2018). Failure to expand the motor unit size to compensate for declining motor unit numbers distinguishes sarcopenic from non-sarcopenic older men. The Journal of Physiology, 00, 1–11. http://doi.org/10.1113/JP275520