How Running Makes Your Body Younger

A young child lines up to run a race

Aging: It’s an unfortunate fact of life that our bodies begin to lose functionality as we age. As runners, we hope our healthy habits will help us beat the clock of aging, or at least slow it down. While we can’t stay young forever, new studies suggest that running and other forms of aerobic exercise really can reverse some effects that come from sedentary aging. In fact, a regular aerobic routine can make our hearts look 30 years younger by the time we reach our 70s.

Ball State University’s study (2018) at the Human Performance Laboratory, led by director and exercise physiologist Scott Trapp, is among the first to examine active men and women in their 70s who have engaged in a lifestyle of regular aerobic exercise for about 50 years. The participants, a mix of runners and cyclists, can give insight into how our cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health may look in old age if we stick to a structured, active lifestyle.

According to the study, "people who exercise regularly year after year have better overall health than their sedentary counterparts." In fact, 75-year-olds who had been exercising regularly most of their life showed cardiovascular health similar to 40- to 45-year-olds.

The findings for muscle health were even more impressive. Muscle biopsies for the 75-year-old lifelong exercisers resembled the muscles of 25-year-olds with similar lifestyle habits. That’s some strong motivation to keep up with the sport!

Three people run together on a trail

The Importance of VO2 Max

The first group of participants were an average of 75 years old and had been staying in shape via aerobic exercise for five to six days a week, averaging seven hours per week. Of the 21 men in the group, 14 of them were subdivided into a “performance” group who competed at a higher level and intensity than the “fitness” group. Seven of the participants were women.

Group two was made up of 20 participants in the same age group—10 men, 10 women—who were healthy but did not participate in structured aerobic exercise.

Group three consisted of 20 participants—again, 10 men and 10 women—averaging 25 years old with the same regular exercise habits as group one.

All three groups were assessed in nine sessions over a six week period. Some of the evaluations included blood draws, resting and exercise electrocardiogram, VO2 max, MRI, and postexercise muscle biopsies.

The evaluation of VO2 max was a key component of the study. VO2 max measures the maximum amount of oxygen a person can use during intense exercise and is a strong indicator of aerobic fitness.

According to the study, the measure of aerobic capacity is a key health marker for all-cause mortality. For the lifelong exercisers, their active lifestyle translated to about a 30 percent reduction in risk of mortality as compared to their otherwise healthy peers who did not engage in a regular exercise routine.

The group of lifelong-exercising seniors who were subdivided into a performance category beyond that of the fitness group showed even more impressive results for VO2 max. Their skeletal muscle results, however, were similar to the fitness group, suggesting that muscle metabolic fitness may be maintained with a less intense level of consistent exercise.

In a recent interview, Trappe told National Public Radio that the findings show that 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day may be the key to a healthy life. However, it will not equal the person training for competitive performance.

A woman wearing the Brooks Launch 5

The Dangers of Sedentary Aging

For the average adult, the ability to process oxygen declines by about ten percent each decade after the age of 30. While we may not notice the effects until around age 50, people may find themselves out of breath more easily when climbing stairs or completing other day-to-day activities. As people age, their hearts begin to get smaller and lose flexibility.

According to sports cardiologist Dr. Ben Levine (TX), our hearts are like rubber bands. They start out flexible, but without enough use, they will dry out and become brittle. Our hearts, similarly, are flexible in our youth, but they stiffen up over time, especially if we don’t purposefully raise our heart rates via regular aerobic exercise. If the stiffness is allowed to continue, people will find themselves out of breath and showing symptoms of heart failure, meaning that the heart cannot effectively pump blood throughout the body.

A group of runners stretches before a workout

It’s Not Too Late to Start Exercising

So, what if you’re beyond your twenties and have not started a regular running routine? Can you still beat the clock of aging, prevent heart failure and stay generally healthy and fit?

According to Levine’s study published in the American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation, human hearts can reverse the aging process, and hearts appear to get “younger” with exercise even into middle age.

Levine’s study took 53 middle-aged (average age 53) participants through a study that lasted two years. Half of the participants engaged in moderate- to high-intensity aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, four to five days per week with the supervision of a trainer. They completed at least one high-intensity interval session per week. The other group engaged in non-aerobic exercise such as yoga, balance and weight training three times per week.

After two years, the aerobic group saw dramatic increases in their health. The VO2 Max scores of the group increased significantly. Levine says, “We took these 50-year-old hearts and turned the clock back to 30- or 35-year-old hearts.” The stiffness originally measured in their hearts lessened, and they regained the ability to process oxygen more efficiently.

The control group of individuals who did not complete aerobic exercise saw no change in heart flexibility and VO2 Max scores.

Levine says the key to reversing the clock is to start exercising while the heart still has its plasticity. If the heart and blood vessels have hardened too much, eventually it will be too late to make a change. In another study, Levine put healthy 70-year-olds through a year-long exercise program, but was unable to make a difference in participants’ heart health by that time.

How to Start Running

Wondering how to start running? If you’re ready to improve your health, now is the time to do it. Set some approachable goals, start small and start a running routine. When you’re in your 70s with the muscles of a 25-year-old, you won’t regret it!

By Kate Schwartz. Schwartz has been running competitively for 20 years, and she currently runs with the Asheville Running Collective. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her husband, Alex, and their cat, Clementine.

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