In a study published in Frontiers in Physiology, researchers investigated the benefits of exercise at any age.
In 2015, the number of people over age 65 totaled 617.1 million. That amount was projected to increase by more than 60% to around one billion by the year 2030. As the population of older people increases, their healthcare needs are also increasing. Unfortunately, the increased lifespan does not equal golden years spent in good health.
Developing methods that allow the older population to improve their health would help bridge the gap between the increasing lifespan and health. Because it is fairly easy and cheap to implement, British researchers at the University of Birmingham decided to investigate the benefits of exercise at any age.
Because muscle mass decreases with age, the researchers hypothesized that lifelong exercisers would gain more benefits from exercise than those who had not. To do so, they tested the muscles of two groups of men. The first group consisted of seven men with an average age of 69 who were lifelong athletes and were still competing. The second group was made up of eight men with an average age of 74, who were in good health but had not participated in any structured exercise program.
The two groups visited the University of Birmingham’s School of Sport, Exercise, and Rehabilitation Sciences (SportExR) laboratory four times. During the first visit, the participants gave a saliva sample and were assessed for their body composition and blood pressure. Then they completed one repetition of the strength training so they could become familiar with the exercise routine. Afterward, each participant was given deuterated water, which is an isotope tracer used to track changes in muscle protein. Then each was given a pedometer to track their daily activity levels.
The second visit was three days later. The researchers took a sample of the participants’ saliva and a sample of muscle and were given food for the next four days to ensure they all ate the same amount of calories.
Two days later during the third visit, another saliva sample and muscle sample were taken from the participants. They then completed their exercise routine, rested for one hour, and another muscle sample was taken. The final visit occurred two days after this when a final saliva sample and muscle sample were taken.
Researchers analyzed the saliva and muscle samples to determine if the benefits of exercise at any age were only for those who historically participated in an exercise program. They were surprised to find that there was no difference between the results of the lifelong athletes and non-athletes. This provided evidence that the benefits of exercise at age can be enjoyed even if one has not regularly participated in an exercise program at all.
Lead researcher Dr. Leigh Breen said in a press release, “Our study clearly shows that it doesn’t matter if you haven’t been a regular exerciser throughout your life, you can still derive benefit from exercise whenever you start. Obviously, a long-term commitment to good health and exercise is the best approach to achieve whole-body health, but even starting later on in life will help delay age-related frailty and muscle weakness.”
Researchers hope that their study will help public health advisors to develop more specific guidelines for older people to develop their muscle strength. Activities such as gardening, walking, or lifting heavy objects can be an effective exercise routine that will help them enjoy the benefits of exercise at any age.
McKendry J, Shad B, Smeuninx B et al. Comparable Rates of Integrated Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis Between Endurance-Trained Master Athletes and Untrained Older Individuals. Front Physiol. 2019;10. doi:10.3389/fphys.2019.01084
U.S. Census Bureau. An Aging World: 2015. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Publishing Office; 2016.