The Fountain of Youth Discovered

September 9, 2011 in Fitness, Health by Mary Ireland

Athletes training in their 40s and 50s are "100 times" better than sedentary people in their 20s according to Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

That is a very bold statement.

Other research corroborates the advantages that physically fit people have over those who are sedentary. For example, a study published in the American Heart Association Journal, Circulation, identifies physical activity as a "powerful and long-acting intervention" benefiting the heart muscle and benefiting telomeres -- a part of DNA which protect the ends of the chromosome.

The effect of telomeres on aging gained prominence when a group of researchers from Saarland University in Homburg were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in discovering the nature of telomeres and how they protect chromosomes from aging. The research found that the DNA of athletes and those physically fit had longer telomeres than sedentary people. In sedentary people, the telomeres became shorter each time the cell divided. When telomeres are gone, the cell dies. In the physically fit, the enzyme telomerase protects the telomeres. This protection delays shortening -- thereby delaying cellular deterioration and eventual cell death. Simply put, exercise works at the cellular level to prevent aging.

Tarnopolsky's research was conducted on mice genetically altered to age prematurely. Researchers found that exercise on a treadmill three times a week prevented many of these physiological symptoms of aging — to the point where they were indistinguishable from non-genetically altered mice. Exercise also prevented premature death in the mice.

A study conducted by researchers at Stanford University has produced similar results in humans. This is a long-term research -- 21 years -- studying the effects of consistent exercise on 284 runners 50 and older. Thirteen years into the study — a control group of 156 people who exercised much less than the runners had a 3.3 times higher death rate than runners. The control group also had higher rates of disabilities.

After 19 years, 15% of runners had died, compared with 34% of the control group. The runners had significantly lower disability levels than non-runners. Runners death rates from cardiovascular events, cancer and neurologic disorders were much lower than in non-runners — 65 compared with 98 deaths in the control group.

Douglas Seals, a physiologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has found the exercise will partially, but not completely, prevent the arterial stiffening that occurs with age. However, his research does show that exercise can completely prevent the dysfunction of the arterial lining that develops with age. "Exercise, it turns out, is probably as powerful as any other kind of prevention strategy or treatment that has been assessed so far."

Even though exercise causes wear and tear on the joints, Michael Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology and an exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, has research that indicates that joints may benefit from lifelong exercise. Joyner theorizes that increased blood flow and other factors my help the body repair itself.

I often hear people rationalize their lack of fitness by quoting some statistic (I have no idea where they get this) that they will live only 15 minutes longer if they exercise. For me, it isn't really about living longer, it is about living longer. I don't want to "live" for 15 or 20 years, sitting in a retirement home, waiting for someone to visit me. I want to be active; I want to be able to get out and enjoy my life. I have faith that exercise will help me to live a fuller life, regardless of how long my life is. I'm banking that exercise and nutritious food will help me live the type of "golden years" I want. The research seems to back up my beliefs.