How does exercise affect ageing?

6 ways exercise can positively affect our health as we get older

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S.A.C. Dip (Diet, Exercise & Fitness), Advanced Human Anatomy & Physiology Level 3
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23 August 2021

How does exercise affect ageing?

Exercise can have a positive effect on aging by improving memory and the function of the immune system. It can also increase muscle mass and strength, two things that can decline with age. Regular exercise also improves life expectancy, cholesterol levels, weight and helps reduce menopause symptoms in women, as well as male menopause.

6 ways exercise positively affects ageing

We know that exercise is crucial in keeping us healthy but it is particularly important for older adults to engage in regular movement. Here are just a few ways in which exercise can positively affect aging:

1. Better memory

The ability to recall memories can be improved through regular aerobic exercise. This is because exercise is known to boost white matter, a part of the brain that carries and connects neurons. Neurons are important in helping to store memories, as well as sending and receiving information from the brain.

Researchers have found that changes to white matter that occur as a result of exercise can develop relatively quickly, so even introducing changes to your lifestyle later in life will bring benefits to memory.

Interestingly, it is known that sections of the brain that are most vulnerable to changes due to aging are actually likely to benefit the most from aerobic exercise. (1)

Aerobic exercise includes a range of activities from a dance class to regular walking.

2. We live longer

Improving activity levels can reduce the risk of death from a number of diseases, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Most importantly, these benefits can still be seen when an individual becomes more active later in life and is not affected by exercise levels earlier on in life. (2) The more active an individual is, the more likely it is that these benefits will be seen.

The focus for older adults should, therefore, be on increasing activity levels and sustaining this lifestyle change long-term.

Another study concluded that the faster a person walks, the longer they may be expected to live. Older adults, in particular, benefit the most from walking at a fast pace. (3)

Government recommendations advise that adults exercise for 2 hours 30 minutes a week. This total can be split into short stints of activity. During this time, we should also focus on activities that increase the heart and breathing rate such as jogging or an exercise class.

3. Better muscle mass and strength

Muscle mass and strength are likely to decline due to aging; however, exercising regularly could help to counteract this. In one study, a group of amateur cyclists between the ages of 55 and 79 did not experience negative changes to their muscle strength or muscle mass that would be expected among this age group. (4) This was put down to the fact they regularly engaged in cycling, a muscle-strengthening activity.

The use of resistance bands and lifting weights are some additional exercises that can improve muscle function and strength.

4. Stronger immune system

The immune system can be negatively affected by aging as the thymus, which makes immune cells called T cells, begins to shrink. Once again exercise can be beneficial here.

In a group of 125 active older adults, the thymus was found to produce as many T cells as in a younger person. (5) Inactive people of the same age did not see these benefits.

In this study, the active participants focused on aerobic activities such as cycling, showing how important these particular kinds of exercise are for the immune system.

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5. Fewer symptoms of male menopause

Male menopause can be experienced by some after the age of 30. This causes symptoms such as low libido, low mood and reduced muscle mass, and is caused by a fall in testosterone.

In research, it has been found that older men who remain active as they age sustain high testosterone levels. This suggests that male menopause symptoms could, to some extent, be prevented by becoming more physically active.

For women, exercise can also help menopausal symptoms such as poor sleep and weight gain. It is also important in helping to strengthen bones and reduce the risk of osteoporosis which is common in menopause.

6. Lower cholesterol

Older cyclists have also been found to avoid high cholesterol and high body fat, two problems that can often increase with age. (6) This can go on to have a positive effect on other areas of health, including heart health and mobility.

If you are not keen to cycle, some other aerobic activities that may bring these kinds of benefits include swimming and brisk walking.

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