Elevating lifespan: Unveiling the surprising impact of exercise on longevity

A growing number of people are chasing longevity with ice baths and supplements. However, the benefits of exercise have been proven for years.

Researchers have been searching for a magic pill to slow aging for decades. The best solution may be the simplest: Move more [1].

There is no single thing that can compare to exercise when it comes to protecting against age-related diseases and helping people get more out of their later years, no matter what it is whether it is regular cold plunges, off-label drugs and supplements like metformin, rapamycin or taurine.

The muscle and bone growth stimulated by exercise can help older adults maintain their independence, lessen fatigue and protect against bad injuries from falls, the leading cause of injury-related death among those over 65. 

Exercise can reduce the risk of certain age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease [2345].

“It’s really remarkable how many of these different hallmarks of aging exercise can target,” says Nathan LeBrasseur, an exercise and aging researcher and director of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Center on Aging at the Mayo Clinic. 

LeBrasseur co-wrote a study in 2021 that showed a structured exercise program reduced a key marker of aging, cell senescence [6]. Senescent cells stop dividing as they age and contribute to multiple age-related diseases.

Research suggests that any amount of physical activity can help extend a person’s life, especially for people who currently are doing very little. Federal guidelines recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise weekly.

A team of researchers who analyzed data on more than 650,000 adults over about a decade found that, compared with those who were inactive, those who got about half the government’s recommended physical activity added an average of 1.8 years to their lives [7]. Those who exercised for roughly five to eight hours weekly gained an average of 4.2 years.

“When you think about that, in terms of how many years you’re gaining per how many minutes of activity, it’s a very sizable yield,” says Steven C. Moore, the study’s lead author and senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute.

Lifespan benefits persisted across age groups and for people classified as overweight. The study, published in 2012 in the journal PLOS Medicine, found that those who were active and moderately obese gained about three years of life expectancy after age 40 compared with those who were average weight but inactive.

More recent research examining physical activity and death rates has backed up those findings. 

Research has found that exercise helps fight aging in many ways, including improving immune function, reducing inflammation and increasing insulin sensitivity.

Fairway-wide and beyond

There is good news for tennis fans: Racket sports, including tennis, squash or racquetball, as well as running and walking were found to have the greatest benefits in a separate study Moore co-wrote on types of physical activity and mortality risk [8]. 

You can also improve your memory and learning ability through exercise. Ozioma Okonkwo, co-author of two studies on moderate-intensity exercise, says moderate exercise increases cerebral blood flow and brain glucose metabolism, which are related to cognitive function [910].

“[Exercise] is one of the few things that the scientific literature is just unequivocal about,” says Dr Christin Glorioso, a neuroscientist and co-founder of longevity biotech startup NeuroAge Therapeutics.  

In the San Francisco Bay near her home, Glorioso runs, hikes and sometimes swims to find a drug that could treat neurodegenerative disorders. The exercise is partly to try to prevent Alzheimer’s disease that runs in her family, she says. 

Let’s put theory into practice

Many self-described biohackers – drawn to experimental lifestyle changes and medications like metformin and rapamycin to engineer longer, healthier lives, count exercise as the most critical tool in their arsenal.

Rich Porter, 42, a tech entrepreneur, took his workout routine from nonexistent to an hour every day, alternating cardio and strength training. His interest in longevity began about a year ago when he started treating wrinkles with Botox injections.

“I thought, that’s really just a superficial solution to a superficial problem and there’s actually something larger that I need to be looking at,” Porter says. “I’d like to be able to do the things I love as long as possible, and then hopefully just die.”

By visualizing what he hopes he will be able to do at age 90, such as hoisting a carry-on suitcase into an airplane’s overhead compartment, Porter motivated himself to work out.

Aging researchers say that exercise is always important, but becomes especially important after middle age when muscle mass and basal metabolic rate, or the number of calories the body naturally burns at rest, start to decline.

Doctors and scientists generally recommend following the federal guidelines for time and intensity of training, including a mix of endurance and strength-training exercises. Strength training becomes essential for people in older age, says Mayo Clinic’s LeBrasseur.

Alexander Boldizar, a 51-year-old writer in Vancouver, British Columbia, averages two workouts a day, often including an hour of “zone two,” or moderate, steady aerobic exercise, followed by an hour and a half of Brazilian jujitsu class.

His longevity regimen also includes off-label drugs like rapamycin and acarbose, a diabetes drug, regular sauna sessions and a smart bed that tracks body movement.

“You’ll see a lot of people in the longevity groups that say, ‘Pills are easier,’ but I think that’s a mistake,” says Boldizar. “I think it’s really important to get the lifestyle stuff down first.”

[1] https://www.wsj.com/articles/fight-aging-science-research-146aa2cd
[2] https://www.med.wisc.edu/news-and-events/2020/february/exercise-brain-function-tied-to-alzheimers-risk/
[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27183032/
[4] https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/japplphysiol.00193.2005
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6481017/
[6] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/acel.13415
[7] https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1001335
[8] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2795598
[9] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28527205/
[10] https://content.iospress.com/articles/brain-plasticity/bpl190093

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