Exercise and Longevity

It’s fairly well established that exercise helps people live longer, better lives.  Hardly a week goes by that we don’t get another headline proclaiming it, along with some vague guidelines for how much brisk walking you need to go to achieve those extra years.  Still, questions remain.  How should we be exercising to get ideal results?  What kinds of exercise?

Unfortunately, research in this area is still in its early stages, particularly with regards to different types of exercise and their relationships to specific outcomes.  However, things are progressing.  Let’s take a look.

What is longevity?

First, let’s talk about longevity.  What does it really mean?  We might say that simply “years of life” counts as longevity, which is certainly a good start.  More years of life is usually a good outcome.  However, in health economics we have a term: Quality Adjusted Life Year, or QALY (pronounced KWA-ly), which measures number of years of life with the added criteria of the quality of those years.

I like this term, since , ideally, we want our exercise to add not just years, but good, healthy, happy, productive years.  Luckily, exercise does just that.

What does exercise do for longevity?

If ever there was a silver bullet “medicine” for a longer, better life, exercise is it.  OK, good nutrition is probably up there, too, but that’s an article for another day.

Here’s a laundry list of longevity benefits you reap from exercise, pretty much regardless of the type of exercise you choose:

  • Increased length of life, regardless of body mass – that’s right, exercise adds years to your life regardless of whether you’re at a healthy weight.
  • Improved quality of life – regular exercisers report higher general “quality of life” measures (subjective and objective) than non-exercisers, probably from a combination of the benefits to follow
  • Improved insulin sensitivity – exercise improves glucose (sugar) handling, which reduces incidence of diabetes and improves body fat storage
  • Improved blood pressure – simple
  • Less depression – exercisers score better on depression scales right through to their elderly years
  • Improved bone density – all exercise improves bone mineral density, helping prevent osteoporosis and broken bones.  As we’ll see, some forms do this better than others.
  • Improved body fat measures – exercisers tend to have better body fat levels

What kinds of exercise?

Cardovascular / Aerobic / Energy Systems Exercise

Cardiovascular, aerobic, energy systems, whatever you want to call it, is by far the most studied form of exercise for longevity outcomes.  In most studies, this means running, cycling, or brisk walking, but it can probably be generalized to any type of energy systems training (swimming, many team sports, rowing, jumping rope, dragging a sled, you name it).  Most studies, however, focus on low-to-moderate-intensity, longer-duration forms.  There isn’t a lot of research out there on higher intensity energy systems training for longevity (although I have high hopes, personally).

This isn’t surprising, as historically, these types of exercise have been the easiest to study and measure.  As a result, most “exercise for longevity” recommendations come tied to a prescription for cardiovascular training.

In addition to the benefits already discussed above, cardiovascular training shows good results for hearth health, both as measured by improved peak oxygen consumption and blood lipid profiles (cholesterol, triglycerides, etc).

Strength Training

We’re only in the early stages of research around strength training and longevity (really strength training research in general), but already the results are impressive.  More and more doctors, coaches, trainers, etc are recommending strength training for longevity related reasons – most importantly for quality of life reasons.

In addition to the general effects of exercise I mentioned above, strength training adds additional benefits:

  • Improved strength – Surprise!  Strength training makes you stronger, which translates to significant quality of life improvements, especially as you age.
  • Improved ability to perform activities of daily living - Directly linked to the above, more strength, especially as you age, makes you better able to perform the activities you need to during day to day life.
  • Improved balance, fewer falls – This applies more to aging patients specifically, but strength training is linked in several studies to improved balance and fewer falls.
  • Improved bone density – While this is listed under a general benefit of all exercise (which is true), strength training is by far the most effective form of exercise for improving bone density and avoiding osteoporosis.
  • Improvements in pain and function in arthritis patients – early research suggests that strength training may he;p with both pain relief and joint function in arthritic populations.  The jury is still out on this one, but it’s good to see early results!

How Much Exercise?

So, of course, the big question is “how much exercise do I need?”  The answer is (as it is so frequently) “it depends.”

In my opinion, no amount if exercise is too little to see benefits.  If you can only exercise for one 15 minute session a week, it’s better than none.  Start there, and work up as your habits improve.

Most “general exercise” studies recommend 30-60 minutes a day of low-moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise, but that recommendation is flawed for a couple reasons.  First, it focuses only on cardiovascular exercise, and second, it assumes a very low intensity.

My recommendation (for what it’s worth) is a blend of both types of training (surprise!).  Ideally, I’d like to see 4 days a week, combining strength training and some energy systems each time.  Another option would be two weight training sessions and two “cardio” or energy systems sessions a week.

I also really like this article from Precision Nutrition as a good “minimum effective dose” program.  While it’s not specifically geared towards increasing longevity, the principles are all there.

Get Exercise, Live Longer.  And Better.

There’s no need to complicate things.  People who exercise regularly live longer, healthier, fuller lives.  If you aren’t getting regular exercise, there’s no better time to start than right now.

Dave Draper