New Physiological Study Validates The Role Of Exercise In Healthy Aging

Senior woman swimming in poolScientists at King’s College of London and the University of Birmingham England took interest in the commonly-held idea that aging automatically equates to frailty. In that study, they tried to find out if a physical difference existed between people of different advancing ages if they exercised regularly.

The researchers looked into certain aspects of bodily deterioration due to aging. The study found out some of the weakening physiological signs normally associated with aging can be less apparent in people who exercised frequently when compared to their similarly aged counterparts.

Published in the January 2015 issue of The Journal of Physiology, the research had been designed to test whether particular physiological signs correspond to age or could be used to tell who was older. In a nutshell, the scientists ran various physical and mental tests on 85 active male elderly and 41 active female elderly who have ages in the range of 55 to 79.

To separate the factors of inactivity and passage of time, Stephen Harridge, senior author of the study, and his team resolved to include only the physically active elderly folks in their study samples. Harridge, director of the Center of Human and Aerospace Physiological Sciences at King’s College London, further explained that they wanted to know how the human body in its best scenario performs as it ages.

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By physically active, the elderly research subjects must be recreational riders. They ruled out any competitive athletes with advanced ages in their study. The scientists used accepted standards of a high degree of fitness to screen the old volunteers.

The male subjects had to be capable of riding at least 62 miles in six hours and thirty minutes. On the other hand, the female subjects had to be able to ride 37 miles in five hours and thirty minutes. As stated earlier, the researchers ensured not to include competitive athletes in their selection of test subjects. This helped them to avoid other possible confounding factors which may include those that would reduce the conclusive value and the findings of the study.

The tests encompassed many but varied physical tests that determined each extraordinarily fit non-professional cyclist’s functions that are usually linked to aging such as muscular mass and strength, endurance capacity, breathing ability, aerobic fitness, skeletal mass, pedaling power, bone density, muscle density, resting heart rate, reflexes, balance and metabolic health. A particular task that the older people had to go through was the so-called Timed Up and Go test. This activity requires one to stand up from sitting on a chair without using his or her arms, quickly walk approximately a 10 feet distance, then turn, walk back and sit down again.

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After numerous tests, the scientific research analyzed the data they gathered – compared the elderly subjects against each other and also with respect to standards of normal aging in previous scientific literature. The rule of thumb was if results in a particular test were not significantly different across wide age range then the corresponding physiological process would appear to be more affected by level of activity than age.

The results were unexpected because in almost all tests, it was difficult to tell who was older. Cyclists whose ages were far apart in the 24-year age range pretty had similar and stable physiological functions. Likewise, people in the upper end of the age range had physical capabilities that were closer to those at the lower end of the range than inactive elderly. Particular measures or aspects where there was no significant distinction among the subjects were metabolic health, reflexes, memory functioning and balance.

The Timed Up and Go test was also unexpected. The oldest cyclists in the study registered an average of 5 seconds to complete the task – comparable to the performance of healthy young adults in the same task and better than the norm of at least 7 seconds for old people.

It should also be noted that these tests also show that there are still a few things that are inevitable for human beings as they advance in age. For instance, our aerobic capacities tend to get lower as we grow older. The same is true with regard for muscle mass and muscular power.

However, the study showed that in terms of endurance and strength the younger people and older people in the age range had a considerable gap, still, the oldest cyclists performed better than their contemporaries. The study supports the notion that activity or the lack thereof, has a bearing on aging.

Critics of this study contend that it is not wise to draw any definite conclusions. For one, the study is based on a very sample size of 126 people who perform strenuous exercises regularly. The participants were all active cyclists. There may be a natural propensity for people who are already physiologically stronger to take up the challenge of regular cycling, and extending the results to the average middle or senior person is futile.


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