Everyone knows that exercise is good for you. But it’s not just beneficial for the young, healthy and already fit. It’s also one of the best defenses against the toughest aspects of aging.
Exercise not only improves heart and lung health, but research shows that even modest physical activity is good for the brain, bones, muscles and mood. Numerous studies have found that lifelong exercise may keep people healthier for longer; delay the onset of 40 chronic conditions or diseases; stave off cognitive decline; reduce the risk of falls; alleviate depression, stress and anxiety; and may even help people live longer.
“Exercise is the best defense and repair strategy that we have to counter different drivers of aging,” says aging researcher Nathan LeBrasseur, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. It can’t reverse aging, per se, he cautions, but “there’s clear evidence that exercise can activate the machinery necessary for DNA repair.”
Of course, the sooner you begin and the longer you remain physically active, the better. But physical activity is important at every age. Research on the effects of exercise on nursing-home residents found improvements in their physical and cognitive abilities as well as on their mental health.
Something else to keep in mind, says LeBrasseur, is that while your risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer or other conditions of aging may not substantially increase until middle age or later, the underlying biology for those conditions is in motion early in life. Genetics and the lifestyle factors you choose will determine that trajectory, but these can influence your likelihood for disease at any point. “So, there’s no such thing as too little, too late.”
The good news is that you don’t have to run a marathon or go to the gym to reap the anti-aging benefits of exercise. Even modest physical activity—taking the stairs instead of the elevator, gardening or walking the dog—has physical and cognitive benefits, as long as you do it regularly. Here are just some of the ways research shows regular activity benefits your health.
It builds muscle strength
As people age, they lose muscle mass and strength, a condition known as sarcopenia. Scientists say resistance training is one of the best ways to help slow that decline. It not only maintains muscle strength and power (what you’ll need while opening a jar or pushing a heavy door), but it makes everyday activities like cooking, cleaning and climbing stairs less difficult. It can also help reduce susceptibility to disease, improve brain health and mood and help you maintain independence longer. Researchers at the University of Alabama found that resistance training is safe and effective for older adults, with rates of injuries extremely low and similar across all ages and intensities.
It improves bone density
To keep bones strong, the body breaks down old bone and replaces it with new bone tissue—but around age 30, bone mass stops increasing. In your 40s and 50s, you slowly start losing more bone than you make. Exercise can help increase bone density when you’re younger and stave off osteoporosis, a disease that weakens bone and increases the risk of breaks as you age.
Almost half of all adults 50 and older are at risk of breaking a bone due to osteoporosis, which costs the health system $19 billion annually, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. But that doesn’t mean that older people are powerless; doing weight-bearing exercise throughout life helps increase bone mass and strength.
Since osteoporosis affects women more often than men, activities like walking or aerobics are especially important after menopause. While older people can’t gain more bone mass, physical activity can help prevent bone loss. Lower impact activities like cycling, yoga and swimming aren’t enough to affect bone loss, but when combined with weight-bearing exercises, they can help improve balance and reduce risk of falls and fractures.
Exercise can lengthen telomeres
Telomeres are the caps on the ends of DNA strands, similar to the caps on shoelaces. Their length decreases with aging, and this contributes to cell senescence, meaning the cells can no longer divide. Telomere length is connected to certain chronic conditions, especially high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. Several studies have found that higher levels of physical activity are related to longer telomere lengths in some people, compared to those who are sedentary. This seems to be especially true in older people. However, it’s still not clear whether that relationship is causal, and it’s likely that multiple processes affect telomere length. But in general, longer telomeres are believed to be a plus for reducing risk of age-related diseases.
It can improve cognition
Your ability to shift quickly between tasks, plan an activity and ignore irrelevant information are all signs of good cognitive function, according to the National Institute on Aging. Physical activity is now seen as one of the most promising methods for improving cognition throughout life and reducing risk of age-related cognitive decline. While researchers can’t yet say for sure that exercise can actually prevent dementia, studies show that more physical activity is linked to reduced risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
As scientists continue to research the effects of exercise, they’re finding all kinds of exciting benefits, says Steven Austad, senior scientific director at the American Federation for Aging Research and chair in the department of biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. For example, “exercising muscle produces myokines, which are small molecules that have all kinds of benefits in your brain,” he says. ”It’s also one way to really improve the quality of your sleep, and we know that the quality of your sleep is related to the quality of your health.”
There’s still a lot we don’t know about how exercise affects the aging process, but what we do know is this: moving your body regularly—five times per week, for at least 30 minutes daily—is better than moving less often. Exercise is cumulative; you don’t have to do it all at once (and of course, check with your health provider before starting any new activity). And a combination of aerobic and resistance exercises seems to provide the most benefits for most people.
Best of all, it’s never too late to start.