New Science on Anti-Aging Effect of Exercise

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I was listening to the radio on my way to work earlier this week and a story on National Public Radio caught my attention. A retired scientist who also happens to be a life-long cyclist noticed he and his friends didn’t seem to be aging the same way their non-cyclist peers were. Not in the “Cocoon” way, but rather that they weren’t experiencing as many illnesses and as much physical decline as they anticipated. Being a scientist, he naturally got together with other scientists and designed a study to figure out why.

The Crux of the Findings

I went and found the actual study by Duggal, et al. and, I have to admit, a good deal of the science was above my pay grade. What I learned from the study, some phone calls, and more reading is that their findings focus on a potential protective effect exercise could have on the function of the thymus, a key component of the endocrine system that plays a large role in the immune system. The thymus is active in the creation of T-cells, which are crucial to the adaptability of the immune system as you encounter new antigens. The thymus is largest and most active up to and through adolescence, and then it starts to atrophy. As humans age, the thymus undergoes “organ involution” as the tissue is gradually replaced by adipose tissue (fat).

The researchers compared the immune systems of 125 lifelong cyclists ranging from 55-79 with age-mated non-athletes and with a group of younger non-athletes. Compared to the elder non-athletes, the masters cyclists showed significantly less decline in thymus function, suggesting they had increased protection against illnesses and decreased chronic inflammation (ageing is associated with “inflammaging”, or an increase in circulating inflammatory cytokines). Essentially, the masters cyclists had “a younger person’s” immune system. Two thumbs up!

Why Cycling, Specifically?

While including cycling in the radio headline grabs attention, the title of the study refers to “high levels of physical activity”. The findings relate to masters cyclists because they were the ones studied, not necessarily because cycling is any better than running or swimming or other physical activity in terms of preserving thymus functionality as we age. This is another case where subsequent studies will certainly examine those variables.

I have my own – albeit biased – view as to why cycling is the fountain of youth.

Low impact – crashes notwithstanding, cycling is easy on the joints, particularly throughout the lower body (feet, ankles, knees, hips). There’s an old saying in orthopedics that “motion is lotion” for joints because it keeps synovial fluid – the lubricant for your joints – moving and working. And with cycling, all this joint movement comes without jarring impacts and high ground reaction forces with each step and jump. As we get older, there’s simply less wear and tear to cause pain and limit mobility.

Adaptable position – Dr. Andy Pruitt at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine always used to say that “the body is adaptable and the bike is adjustable”, meaning you could almost always find a way to adjust a person’s bike fit – and help them adapt physically – in order to improve performance and/or keep them riding. We see this all the time. Fred Schmid, the 84-year-old CTS Athlete who keeps winning his age group at the US cyclocross national championships, has a pretty upright position on the bike. Gage Hecht, the U23 Pan-Am Cyclocross Champion coached by Jim Lehman, has a low and aggressive cycling position. Some cyclists move to recumbents and trikes, but they keep pedaling.

Gears – Mechanical assistance is a key to keeping cycling enjoyable from childhood through old age. When you have power you can leverage it with big gear ratios. When you’re not as strong – at any age – you can break the work into smaller chunks by using lower gears. That said, billions of people – old and young – around the world ride their whole lives on bikes with only one gear.

The Problem With This Aging Study

Correlation is not causation. Just because masters cyclists showed different immune system function doesn’t mean the cycling is what caused the differences. To be clear, the researchers in this study aren’t necessarily saying it is, either. Their results do, however, support earlier research that shows physical activity slows the physical, mental, and even mental, decline associated with aging.

While I firmly believe exercise plays a huge role in longevity and long-term quality of life, I also recognize it’s difficult to say that sport is what keeps older athletes healthy. To some extent it could be the opposite; good genes and other healthy lifestyle habits may mean some fortunate people are physically capable of being athletes into older ages. Ultrarunning provides some evidence for this. If running were inherently damaging to knees, there would be no ultrarunners over the age of 40. Yet, go to any ultramarathon and you’ll see the 40+ age group is not only huge, but they often place in the top 10 and sometimes even win! It’s not that ultrarunning is beneficial for your knees, but rather that runners who are genetically well suited for running, take care of themselves, and don’t suffer accidents, don’t get injured and keep running.

Personally, I’m banking on a little bit of both. I’m hoping my genes and healthy lifestyle habits will enable me to be an athlete for the rest of my days, and I’m hoping that staying active and continuing to train will protect me or slow the progression of age-related performance declines.

Who’s with me?!

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

Duggal, Niharika Arora, et al. “Major Features of Immunesenescence, Including Reduced Thymic Output, Are Ameliorated by High Levels of Physical Activity in Adulthood.” Aging Cell, vol. 17, no. 2, 2018, doi:10.1111/acel.12750.


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Comments 12

  1. Maybe, I’ve been averaging 6000+ miles a year since I was 33, I’m 61 now and seems like medical problems hit me maybe more than my non athletic friends who are over weight & unfit. But who knows, maybe if hadn’t lived a healthy, fit live still, I’d died yrs ago??

  2. Chris –

    I have long argued that there is nothing that anyone can do to add or subtract one minute to one’s lifetime. Without getting too specific, this belief is grounded in my spiritual background…basically, we’re given x-amount of days and when that x is realized, it’s time to go Home.

    I DO believe, however, that taking proper care of oneself absolutely positively increases the quality of one’s life. Quitting smoking (1986), quitting drinking (1981), exercising regularly (off and on since 1970 and 112 consecutive four-times-weekly weeks since 2016) and riding (been really lazy with this of late) has definitely increased the quality of my existence. Aches and pains notwithstanding (medications help), just making the effort some days seems to have held some of the aging process in abeyance.

    Though tomorrow isn’t promised,I keep telling myself that I’ve been blessed to reach almost 64. When I reach the end of my allotment, I’ll most surely look back and be glad that I was able to make a positive impact on my so-called “declining” (reclining?) years.

    Quality, not quantity…be grateful…and no matter how many or how few…

    Rock On!!!

    Jeff Sipos
    Strongsville, Ohio
    John 16:33
    Proverbs 17:6
    Joel 2:28

  3. This is a wonderful article! I am 61 years old, a physician and I firmly believe that regular daily exercise has made a difference in my life. I also have good genes as my dad who recently passed away at the age of 104 and my mom who passed away at the age of 95 were avid swimmers. They enjoyed a daily routine which kept them going. I have seen many of my friends have cycling injuries So I prefer to Peloton. I have bad knees so I choose ro do spin classes every morning and on the mornings that I miss my class I really miss my class! I am on point all day long after my class and it makes me feel like I am in a different zone andhave done something for myself. My mental acuity has vastly improved and I hope to be able to continue my spin addiction until I drop!

  4. Es una alegría saber que la práctica continuada del ciclismo y hacer dieta saludable, es beneficiosa para la salud y el envejecimiento. Yo también veo a los mayores que hacen bicicleta y siempre deseo estar como ellos, cuando me llegue su edad. Gracias por este bonito artículo. Estos son motivos para seguir con ilusión pedaleando fuerte.

  5. After almost a half century of riding, I am a great believer in the study — or at least its conclusions. I raced in my 20s, but my long-distance (over 100 miles) performance has been better in my 60s. Of course, I have the usual aches and pains for somebody almost 70 and I use hot yoga to “balance” the stress of the bike and retain flexibility. I am a teacher and a business skills trainer and routinely will be on my feet in a classroom for 8 hours a day. I think that’s only possible because of the years on the bike.

  6. I believe that most forms of exercise keep one’s body healthy and from deteriorating/aging faster. I’m 52 years old and work on an automotive assembly line for a living. My job punishes my body every day. From standing on my feet, to using my hands, arms, legs and back, my job takes a toll on me, but I owe my lifestyle outside of work the credit that keeps me in great shape.
    My diet consists mostly of fruits, vegetables, nuts and my daughters awesome “good for you” baked goods. My daughter is in culinary arts and makes some of the most spectacular, healthy baked goods on the planet! I also take a five seed oil from activation products. This oil gives my body the nutrients it needs to keep my brain, heart, respiratory and muscles healthy. In addition to what I just mentioned, I also take Magnesium on a daily basis. Along with Magnesium, I add trace minerals in my water jug and consume it throughout the day. Magnesium is responsible for many metabolic processes in your body, especially nourishing the heart.
    Now I will mention what I do to keep me healthy besides my daily diet. After work, I go running at a local Metro Park five days a week. I run on some very aggressive, technical mountain bike trails. Most of you reading this know how grueling these particular trails can be while riding a mountain bike. Try running those technical trails, especially after being on your feet all day long!
    Along with diet and exercise, if one wants to decelerate their aging process, I believe these are some of the ways to stay young and healthy. The one thing I forgot to add, and the most important anti-aging remedy is; “LESS STRESS!”

    1. Frado

      Great comments! Keep it going!!! And since you probably know those mtn bike trails quite well by now, get a mtn bike and ride ’em. If you’ve gotta walk or carry some of it, rejoice in the work load – and remember that hike-a-bike is included in what a lot of us consider a fun part of the game.

  7. After 35 years of avid cycling, being 74 years old and having/ had several significant health problems, I sense that genes, healthy living, and consistent moderate exercise are the key ingredients…

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