How Exercise Will Stop You Getting Sick – or Old

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head Trainer, Mid Age Man

Active older people do not build up fat or cholesterol like their inactive counterparts. They even have the immune system of a 20-year-old, a new study shows. This allows them to enjoy the Third Age of Man, a whole new phase of life.

When we’re young, the thought of getting old doesn’t really occur to us. It happens to other people. Or it doesn’t happen at all – people are just big, like our parents, or old, like poh poh and gung gung (Grandma and Grandpa in Cantonese).

We figure they’ll stay that way. And we just want to get older. We can never wait for the next birthday.

Even as adults, I think we secretly each feel like we ourselves are not really gonna get old. Like Woody Allen said, “I’m planning on living forever. So far, so good.”

But as adults, we realize there is such a thing as age, and at some point that childhood urge to get older stops.

For me, it was at the age of 24. I was out of college, working, living by myself, in control of my own destiny. “This is fine by me,” I thought. “It would be good if time, at least in terms of my age, just stopped here.”

But it didn’t. Time waits for nobody. Now I’m 47, which to me is a shockingly old age. I’m older than my “old” parents were when I was little. I look at pictures of them, now, and think “They were so young!”

Yet, if the cliché “Time and tide waits for no man” is true, it’s equally true that “Age is just a number.” I’ve got 47 on my speedometer. I don’t feel it on my body.

We don’t have to. The phenomenon of ageing, physically, that we think is inevitable,  is not. We do not have to shrivel up into a shell of a little old lady or man. We can pause, even reverse time.

It’s scientifically true. That much is clear in the results of a new study.

Some crazy Brit scientists found some crazy old cyclists and proved that doing crazy amounts of exercise keeps you young. Even if you’re 82 years old – the age of Norman Lazarus, a King’s College professor who helped conduct the study.

veteran cycling.jpg
It’s possible to dial the miles back on the odometer through regular physical exercise, which will even prevent you from getting sick.

The doctors tracked down 125 amateur cyclists between the ages of 55 and 79. The men had to be able to cycle 100 km in less than 6 hrs 30 mins, and the women had to be able to tackle 60 km in 5 hrs 30 mins or less. They also kicked out smokers, heavy drinkers and people with high blood pressure.

They tested the “old” cyclists against a control pool of 75 healthy people of a similar advanced age who don’t really exercise. And they also tested 55 healthy younger people, between the ages of 20 and 36, who also just generally sit around on their butts.

The creaking cyclists, crackling knees and all, showed none of the loss of muscle mass and strength that the lazy older people showed. The cyclists did not build up fat or cholesterol as they aged. The men didn’t see their levels of testosterone drop, meaning they suffered none of the symptoms of “male menopause.”

But the most surprising discovery is that exercise helps us to avoid getting sick. The researchers were shocked to find that the “vintage” cyclists had the exact same immune systems as the 20-somethings.

One of our organs, the thymus, makes T cells, which are important immune cells. The thymus normally starts to shrink after the age of 20, and therefore makes fewer T cells.

But the thymuses (thymi?) of the veteran cyclists were pumping out just as many T cells as the youngsters. Their immune systems simply hadn’t aged.

Our immune systems decline by 2% to 3% each year once we hit 30. After 30, we also lose 4 lbs of “lean mass,” mainly muscle, each decade. And our metabolism slows 2% to 4% every 10 years.

But none of that has to happen. “Our findings debunk the assumption that ageing automatically makes us more frail,” Janet Lord, the director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham, says.

Mid Age Man agrees. We do not believe in “middle age.” Our ethos is built on the idea that the mid-life years between the age of 30 and whatever we consider “really old” are long, in fact the bulk of our lives. With a little work, we can make sure they are fulfilling and enjoyable.

The scientists think that too. We don’t need to hit our sell-by date, then slowly gather mould and evaporate away until we contract pneumonia and it does us in.

“We hope these findings prevent the danger that, as a society, we accept that old age and disease are normal bedfellows, and that the Third Age of Man is something to be endured and not enjoyed,” Niharika Arora Duggal, a University of Birmingham doctor who helped with the study, says. You can find the study itself here.

The “Third Age,” if you’re unfamiliar with the term, refers to the phase of life after First Age childhood dependence and Second Age working maturity. Third Age runs through the retirement independent years, leading to a final Fourth Age of dependence, decrepitude and death (which doesn’t sound that fun).

Life expectancy still only runs to age 50 in Sierra Leone, and 54 in Nigeria. But it stretches to over the age of 80 in 30 nations in the developed world, led by Hong Kong, at 84.

So that Third Age gives us an “extra” 30 years or so that no one on earth has ever had before. If you think about it, there’s very little of it reflected in culture or the arts, and scientists haven’t even studied it that much.

third age running.jpg
The lifestyles of those living through an active and productive Third Age have not been studied very much or depicted in the arts.

This work on the grey-haired bikers, conducted by folks in white lab coats from King’s College and the University of Birmingham, proves it can be heartily and healthily enjoyed.

Lord, who helped conduct the research, has shown elsewhere that although lifespans are extending – by 2034, one in every four Brits will be over 65 – the quality of lifespans is not improving as fast. “Unhealthy life expectancy” is on the up.

We have the antidote. “If exercise was a pill, everybody would be taking it,” Lazarus, the 82-year-old mad doctor/crazy cyclist says.

We do not all take it. In fact, fewer than half of the people over the age of 65 do the minimum amount of exercise that will keep them healthy. And more than half of people over the age of 65 suffer from two or more diseases.

Now we know why. Exercise will disease-proof you, as well as making sure you can pick up your grandkids and get out of the shower without breaking a hip. We don’t have to go out like that.

I’m certainly not going down without a fight. I’m not kidding when I say I knocked a decade off my age by starting my fitness kick. Through exercising daily and eating right, I lost 15.7% of my bodyweight. I pick up a 30 lb dumbell now and think, “Wow, I was just carrying this around, for no reason.” That takes its toll.

The figures on my blood tests, which were horrendous, went back to normal. My blood pressure came under control. I look younger. I feel younger. I’m fitter than at any point in my life.

The research out of the United Kingdom suggests I’m not crazy to feel that way, and I’m not alone. You don’t even have to be a crazy cyclist to get the benefits of exercise.

Lazarus, the 82-year-old, notes that he is well aware he is not going to win the Tour de France anytime soon. Well, ever, to be honest. At 82, I think he’ll admit that.

But that’s exactly the point. He is not a pro cyclist. He just likes riding his bike.

“Most of us who exercise have nowhere near the physiological capacities of elite athletes,” he says. “We exercise mainly to enjoy ourselves.” He figures nearly everybody can find an exercise that suits their mindset and body type.

Like Mid Age Man, he advises setting aside a part of your day as exercise. Think of it as taking your daily exercise pill. Or like brushing your teeth. Just something you do, each and every day.

We often say we don’t have the time to exercise. Make time. Even just 15 minutes a day is enough. In fact, if it’s a form of exercise you enjoy, you will make the time for it.

After all, exercise should be fun, not a chore. It’s a hell of a lot more fun than brushing your teeth or taking a pill. Or that Fourth Age.

Lazarus likes cycling. That’s just him. You can emulate him any way you see fit.

“Find an exercise that you enjoy, in whatever environment that suits you, and make a habit of physical activity,” he says. “You will reap the rewards in later life by enjoying an independent and productive old age.”

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About the author

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head trainer at Mid Age Man. Alex believes there are four pillars to being healthy: physical fitness, sensible nutrition, mental strength, and wellbeing for your body and soul.

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