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Exercise Reverse The Ageing Process

While many in their 80s and 90s may be starting to take it easy, 85-year-old track star Irene Obera is at the other end of the spectrum.

Setting multiple world athletics records in her age category, she is one of a growing band of “master athletes” who represent the extreme end of what is physically possible later in life.

Another is John Starbrook, who at 87 became the oldest runner to complete the 2018 London Marathon.

Studies suggest regular exercise is more effective than any drug yet invented to prevent conditions facing older people, such as muscle loss.

To reap the full benefits, this pattern of behaviour should be laid down in a person’s teens and early 20s

What can we learn from elderly athletes?

Studying master athletes – sportspeople aged 35 and over – gives us an idea of what is physically possible as we age.

Analysing the world record performance times of each age group unsurprisingly reveals that physical ability does ultimately diminish, the older you get – but doesn’t fall off rapidly until after the age of 70.

It is reasonable to assume these top athletes have a healthy lifestyle in general; as well as exercising, they follow a balanced diet and don’t smoke or drink heavily.

So their results can help us determine how much of this decline is due to the ageing process itself.

Can exercise reverse the ageing process?

The greater health of older exercisers compared to their sedentary counterparts can lead people to believe physical activity can reverse or slow down the ageing process.

But the reality is that these active older people are exactly as they should be.

Quality of life

Not only does exercise help prevent the onset of many diseases, it can also help to cure or alleviate others, improving our quality of life.

Recent studies of recreational cyclists aged 55-79 suggest they have the capacity to do everyday tasks very easily and efficiently because nearly all parts of their body are in remarkably good condition.

Kazuyoshi Miura, 52, is the world’s oldest professional footballer

The cyclists also scored highly on tests measuring mental agility, mental health and quality of life.

What can you do?

Most people should not be aiming to become a world-beating athlete in their advanced years; they don’t need to be to reach optimal health.

Instead, incorporating small regular bouts of physical activity – brisk walking or ballroom dancing – into your routine is the key.

Physical activity is one of the cornerstones of a healthy life. Even if you can’t be a competitive athlete, starting to regularly exercise in your 20s and 30s is likely to pay off later on.

And if you’re past that point, just gently becoming active will do a huge amount of good.


More info…

This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from experts working for an outside organisation.

Stephen Harridge is professor of Human & Applied Physiology at King’s College London.

Norman Lazarus is Emeritus professor at King’s College London and is a master cyclist in his 80s.

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