By Gabe Mirkin, M.D.
Scientific studies firmly establish that a regular exercise program can help to prolong your life (J Aging Res, July 2012;2012:243958). Recent studies show that older adults who lift weights are up to 22 percent less likely to die from any cause, heart attacks or cancer than people who do not lift weights (Brit J of Sports Med, Nov 1, 2022;56(2)). Those who both lift weights and participate in an aerobic exercise program had the lowest death risk of all.
Lifting weights helps to grow larger muscles, and studies show that people who have larger muscles live longer than those with smaller muscles (Am J Med, 2014 Jun;127(6):547–553). Lower muscle strength predicts an earlier death rate (J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci, 2002;57(10):B359–65). Also, older osteoporotic women have a 20 percent chance of dying within one year after they fall and break a hip bone (Geriatr Orthop Surg Rehabil, Sept 2010;1(1):6–14). Everyone loses muscle and bone with aging, and those who lift weights can gain added protection from osteoporosis and broken bones (Bone, 2015 Oct;79:203-12).
Just Keep Moving Around
Both just moving about and any exercise program help to prolong your life by:
• strengthening your heart muscle,
• increasing the ability of the heart to pump increased amounts of oxygen through the body,
• reducing belly fat, and
• increasing the diversity of bacteria in your colon to help prevent inflammation.
The Copenhagen City Heart Study examined which sports are associated with living the longest (Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Sept 2018;93(12)). Compared to people who did not exercise, people who played tennis lived an average of 9.7 years longer, while badminton added 6.2 years, soccer 4.7 years, cycling 3.7 years, swimming 3.4 years, jogging 3.2 years, calisthenics 3.1 years, and health club activities 1.5 years. This study followed 8,577 people for up to 25 years. Twelve percent were primarily sedentary while 66 percent reported exercising regularly. Those who exercised only occasionally were not included in the data.
The amount of time spent exercising did not correlate with longevity. Those who worked out in health clubs (treadmill, elliptical, stair-climber, stationary bikes, and weightlifting) averaged 2.5 hours per week, while the longest-living group, tennis players, played only 1.7 hours per week. Cyclists, who averaged the most time exercising per week (6.4 hours), lived six years less than the tennis players. The authors report that the sports that were associated with living the longest are the ones that require interval training of some sort: short bursts of exercise using large muscle groups and full body movement. Another factor associated with increased longevity appeared to be the amount of social interaction of group sports (tennis, badminton, and soccer) compared to more solitary exercise (jogging, swimming, and cycling).
Exercise Strengthens the Heart
Older men who exercise have stronger and larger hearts that supply more oxygen to their bodies (Sports Medicine, February 2019;49(2):199-219). The authors reviewed 32 studies of men over 45 years of age, comparing 644 athletes to 582 non-exercising controls. Echocardiograms showed that the athletes’ hearts had far more muscle. The stronger and bigger hearts pumped more blood and oxygen with each beat and had more beneficial heart rhythms. The older athletes maintained these heart benefits as they aged. Having the ability to supply more oxygen to your heart muscle is a major factor that helps to prevent heart attacks.
Sedentary People Have More Belly Fat
Compared to people who exercise, those who do not exercise regularly have much higher levels of fat in their liver, and that fat markedly increases risk for diabetes (Diabetes, 1993;42(2):273–81; Obesity, Dec 20, 2017) and heart attacks (Obes Res, 2003;11(7):817–27). The authors used MRI scans on 124 participants to show that the more time people spend sitting down, the more belly and liver fat they have. They used accelerometers and histories to measure how much time the people spent sitting down.
Exercise Increases Bacterial Diversity in Your Colon
Of 37 breast cancer survivors, those with the highest level of fitness (endurance and maximal ability to take in and use oxygen) had the most different types of bacteria in their colon (bacterial diversity), regardless of how much fat they had in their bodies (Exp Physiol, Feb 14, 2019). The authors suggest that exercising regularly and more intensely can increase the efficiency with which your heart transports oxygen to your tissues, which, in turn, encourages a greater diversity of bacteria to grow in your colon. Having more and different types of bacteria in your colon is associated with increased lifespan and freedom from diseases such as heart attacks and certain cancers (Int J Mol Sci, Apr 2015;16(4):7493-7519).
Healthful bacteria turn soluble fiber into short chain fatty acids that lower high cholesterol and high blood pressure and reduce inflammation that can cause diabetes, heart attacks and certain cancers. The more different types of bacteria you have in your colon, the longer you can expect to live. The authors tested non-metastatic breast cancer survivors who were at least one year post-treatment. Those who had the highest heart and lung fitness levels (most intense exercise capacity) had significantly greater numbers of different types of gut bacteria compared to less fit participants. The people who exercised at the most intense levels had more varied colon bacteria.
Every week, I see new studies that show that exercise prolongs lives, and now we are seeing studies that show the advantages of lifting weights and other intense exercise over less-intense exercise. However, people with blocked arteries can suffer heart attacks with more intense exercise, so it is a good idea to check with your doctor before starting an exercise program or increasing the intensity of your present exercise program.
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana. His website is http://drmirkin.com/. Click to read Gabe’s full bio.
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