The number one most important anti-aging intervention that any person can do for their lives right now, today, is physical activity, which is essential to prolong our life expectancy and our quality of life.
When it comes to our bodies and muscular development, many of us have an unrealistic image of ourselves when we look in the mirror—we think we look younger and stronger than we actually are. Our genetic inheritance does play a role to influence how strong we are. However, as I have stated multiple times in the past, our genetic disposition makes up approximately 30% or less of who we are. The other 70% is based on how we work with what we have. I am always talking about anti-aging, which is all about maximizing that 70%.
I recently read that the global mortality burden of physical inactivity stands at over 5.3 million deaths annually, which surpasses even the deaths attributable to cigarette smoking at five million per year. The World Health Organization has taken many studies into account and has come up with the recommendation of 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity, which can include brisk walking.
Multiple studies show that if we achieve that level of activity, we will significantly decrease our risks of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, colon cancer and all other causes of mortality.
In the past, I have said that the longer our DNA is, the younger we are. Telomeres, the protective ends of our chromosomes, are a measure of cellular age and are protected from premature shortening by regular physical activity. Elizabeth Blackburn, from the University of San Francisco and her colleagues documented the effects of psychological stressors that lead to shorter telomere lengths and showed that exercise may prevent this damage.
We all know that during psychological stress, stress hormones are released. These stress hormones served the caveman well when he had to fight or flee from a sabretooth tiger. Basically, the heart rate goes up, sugar gets dumped into the blood for quick energy and hormones such as cortisol flood the bloodstream so that if the caveman was cut by the claws of the tiger, he would have decreased pain sensation for a short while so that he could continue to fight.
However, we are no longer fighting for our lives or routinely facing the possibility of being mortally wounded, yet on a daily basis we encounter all types of stressors. To the degree that we are unable to cope with this stress, the constant cortisol dumping causes adrenal fatigue and many other hormone cascades that are detrimental to our health and our telomeres, and consequently age us. The best way to blow off this fight or flight response is not by speaking with a psychiatrist or psychologist, but to put on gym shoes and physically burn it off. It’s not really so different from how the caveman released his cortisol. And a good workout can make you feel like you’d just chased away that tiger, or better yet, shared with your tribe for dinner!
In the Journal of Applied Psychology, January 9, 2012, it is noted that a study from Tel Aviv University in Israel was done with 1,632 healthy private and public sector workers Those who experienced four or more hours per week of exercise were half as likely to experience deterioration in their mental states compared with those who did no physical activity. The study also suggests that physical activity during leisure time may be an effective stress management tool.
In the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, February 2012, pages 807-827, it is noted that people who were more physically active reported greater levels of excitement and enthusiasm, compared to people who were less active. And further, these pleasant feelings were greater on the days when they were more physically active.
In summary, from these and several other studies I have read, the more exercise one gets, the less depression, anxiety and psychological stressors one will experience.
In the Journal of Applied Physiology, April 28, 2011, it is noted that researchers reviewed 111 recent studies involving people ranging in ages from very young to very old, and it was shown that exercise appeared to improve memory, attention and decision making. These effects extended from young adults to elderly adults with solid evidence that aerobic training benefited their executive function, including multi-tasking and planning, and increasing the volume of the brain structures important for memory and cognition.
Even though we are exercising our bodies with physical activity, it’s not just our muscles and joints that derive benefits, our brain is also benefiting. The effect of this insight cannot he overstated, especially for individuals who have jobs or hobbies that require quick reaction times. When I am splitting traffic on my motorcycle and a driver who’s either inattentive or hostile decides to put his driver’s side door on my leg while I am going 65 miles per hour, it takes a lot of muscular coordination and rapid brain function not to panic at that moment and to remain calm and get out of that situation without kicking in his door.
A study from China demonstrated very nicely how exercise contributes to neurogenesis, the regrowth of key adult brain cells. The study went on to say that a deficit in neurogenesis as an adult may result in depressive disorders and an increasing amount of stress, I’ve read that after 40 years of age, each of us, on average, loses 1% of their muscle strength and 1% of their cardiovascular ability per year unless we exercise. And, by the same token, a fit 70-year-old can have the cardiovascular capacity of a sedentary 30-year-old.
It is critically important that we maintain our muscle strength and our cardiovascular ability in order to preserve our mobility, independent living and the ability to ride our bikes. In a German study of persons older than age 60, the team found that regular resistance training increased muscle strength and reduced muscular atrophy, and the tendons and bones also responded positively. As a result, exercise has a preventative effect in terms of avoiding falls and injuries.
Next month, let’s learn precisely what sort of exercise is most beneficial.
John Alevizos is Board Certified in Family Practice and specializes in Anti-Aging Medicine.