Futurists say advances in medicine will make it possible for people in the years ahead to live longer and be more active than in previous generations but researchers at Ball State University have discovered the real key is old fashioned exercise.
Scientists compared lifelong exercisers in their 70s to younger people and sedentary people their own age. The results were published in the Journal of Applied Physiology and showed people in their 70s who have been exercising throughout their lifetime have the muscle fitness as well as heart and lung capacities of healthy people in their 40s.
"'Exercise wins is the take-home message," said Scott Trappe, director of Ball State's Human Performance Laboratory. "We saw that people who exercise regularly year after year have better overall health. These 75-year-olds—men and women—have similar cardiovascular health to a 40- to 45-year-old."
Exercise is a hobby for the average study participant with each working out an average of five days per week for about seven total hours. Their cardiovascular health was tested on an indoor bicycle. They had their VO2 max measured, which is the amount of oxygen a person uses during intense exercise and represents aerobic endurance. Study subjects also had a muscle biopsy to gauge capillary formation and aerobic enzyme activity.
Previous research has shown VO2 max typically declines about 10 percent per decade after the age of 30, but regular exercise is able to keep that decline in check. The reduction in cardiovascular fitness as a result of aging has been associated with an increased risk for many chronic diseases.
Researchers divided the male subjects into two groups to further determine the extent of their fitness. One group focused on general fitness for their exercise while the other group was comprised of those whose exercise activities revolved around training for competition.
"For some of the variables, the performance group had some metrics that were superior to the fitness people, and cardiovascular capacity was one of those," Trappe said. "But things like muscle health and capillaries to support blood flow, they were equivalent between the two groups. Higher intensity didn't necessarily take them to a higher place."
Trappe made the point that exercise may be the key to a healthy life for the average person but not to get discouraged if you are getting a late start in life or if you don’t have the desire to train for competition.
"If you want to put 30 to 45 minutes of walking in one day, the amount of health benefit you are going to get from that is going to be significant and substantial," he said. "Will it equal the person training for competitive performances? No. But, it will outdo the couch potato. In basic terms, 30 to 45 minutes of any type of exercise a day is beneficial."
Click here to read more in the Journal of Applied Physiology.