There might be some contrarian physiologist I’m neglecting here, but it does not feel controversial to say that, among people who study exercise, there is 100 percent consensus re: working out being good for you. Yet for those of us who have adjusted to feeling physically awful all the time, “good for you” might not cut it, incentive-wise. More appealing, perhaps, is the prospect of a longer life.
Not lifting weights is extremely fun, as is not biking, and not participating in amateur hockey leagues, but is the joy of not doing those things really worth dying earlier, than say, someone who does squats? Before answering that, it would be useful to know just how much more life one might reasonably expect from a regular exercise regimen. For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts to find out.
Professor of Internal Medicine and holder of the Distinguished Professorship in Exercise Sciences at UT Southwestern Medical Center, as well as Founder and Director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM)
If you prevent death from, let’s say, cardiovascular disease, you still might die from cancer. You can ride your bike regularly, and be very fit, but still get hit by a car. There are a variety of what we call ‘competing risks’ in life. So it really depends on who you are, and how old you are, and what your risk factors for a variety of different life-ending causes might be.
We know that exercise reduces the risks of multiple different things—most dramatically cardiovascular disease (by as much as 50%, depending on what the circumstances may be). That number will vary depending on your health, or whether you have underlying cardiovascular disease, or if you had a heart attack in the past. But there’s no doubt that, in virtually every study, the answer is substantial reduction in cardiovascular death. It’s hard to give a number of how many months or years longer you might live, but what’s more important is that it will make you fit and strong and help you live better.
When I talk to people about exercise I say you need to make it part of your personal hygiene—the same way you brush your teeth, change your underwear, and try to eat well. My prescription for life is 4-5 days a week of some sort of exercise. I recommend that everyone do at least one long session once a week lasting at least an hour and make it something fun—it could be a dance class, it could be some tennis, it could be a walk with your spouse, it could be a long bike ride in the park. I don’t care what it is, but it has to be relatively long and something that you enjoy. I also recommend you do at least 1 day a week of something that’s high intensity. There are a variety of different types of interval training. And then 2-3 days a week of the kind of moderate to vigorous intensity workout that most people think about when they think about exercise—getting on a bike or an elliptical, going out for a run or a brisk walk, etc. Something that will leave you where you’re short enough of break to keep talking, but you can’t sing.
Professor, Exercise Science, Brigham Young University
No one can predict how long an individual will live. However, as a group, exercisers live significantly longer than sedentary adults. Although there are many different methods that can be used to estimate the extra years exercisers may gain from their physical activity, one strategy is to measure their telomeres. Telomeres are the end-caps of chromosomes. The length of telomeres provides a good indication of how old a person is biologically.
In a study I conducted, a total of 5,823 U.S. adults were examined. Men and women who performed high levels of physical activity each week had much longer telomeres than their counterparts. In fact, the length of telomeres showed that adults with high levels of weekly activity had almost 9 years less biologic aging compared to those who were sedentary.
In the investigation, several dozen different physical activities were assessed, so there were many things adults could do to increase their fitness levels. Those who performed vigorous activity 35-45 minutes or more per day, five days per week, had the longest telomeres. Individuals who exercised at a moderate intensity had to do their activities much longer, an hour or more per session. Although high levels of physical activity and longer telomeres do not guarantee a longer life, they definitely increase the likelihood.
CardioRACE Project Manager and Postdoctoral Associate, Kinesiology, Iowa State University, who has studied running as a key lifestyle medicine for longevity
After taking into account, age, sex, smoking, obesity, and other medical conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, we found in a study we conducted that runners live on average 3 years longer than non-runners, which is similar to what other studies on runners have found. We further estimated that for every 1 hour you spend running, you net gain an additional 7 hours of life. Beyond running, other studies have found that people live on average 3-4 years longer if they are regularly active compared to inactive. However, most of this evidence comes from self-reported participation in traditional aerobic activities like walking, biking, or swimming. We know very little about the potential longevity boost you can get from participating in other popular forms of exercise, like resistance training. There is growing evidence that muscular strength and function is just as important as aerobic fitness for aging well. No matter what, though, you only get a longevity benefit by doing exercise in the long-term, which means that you should select an activity that you enjoy and that feels good for your body. There are endless ways to be active, but often it’s the simplest activities, like walking, that are most sustainable for life.
Professor, Kinesiology and Health Education, The University of Texas at Austin
Regular physical activity brings multitudes of benefits for most organs and tissues we have in our body. It also acts to reduce premature deaths from common cardiovascular events including heart attacks and strokes. Even if you experience similar kinds of heart attacks, damages that you experience tend to be much less if you are exercising regularly. But there is no good evidence showing that regular physical activity extends lifespan.
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