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How heart-healthy exercise makes you younger

March 5, 2019 (Updated: March 12, 2020)
Lily Moran

You may remember when joggers were considered a little, well, weird. Why run anywhere just to run back to the beginning, sweaty, breathless, and heart pounding? That dismissive attitude was held decades ago, but many joggers ignored it and kept moving. Researchers recently got to wondering how the health of multi-decade joggers—and other long-term exercisers—compared with that of the less active.

The Cardio Health of a Healthy Forty Year-old

I’ll fast forward to the astonishing findings.

Long-term exercisers now in their 70s have been exercising regularly for decades. They had the heart, lung, and muscle fitness of healthy people at least 30 years younger than their age.

It’s long been a given that exercise is generally good for general overall health. Now we have substantiating data—in detail.[i]

It was back in the 1970s that those jogging and aerobics “weirdos” started what became a lifelong habit—and a sizable cohort of them never stopped. So today’s septuagenarians have been exercising regularly for the past 50 years.

The Performance Laboratory at Indiana’s Ball State University is headed by exercise physiologist Scott Trappe. He and his team are among the first to dive into this data pool, which had never even existed until now.

Says Trappe, “We were interested in basically two questions: One, what was their cardiovascular health? And two, what was their skeletal muscle health?”

Trappe divided 70 healthy participants into three groups.

  1. Those in the lifelong exercise group were on average 75 years old and primarily kept their heart rates up through running and cycling. They participated in structured exercise 4 to 6 days a week, for a total of about 7 hours a week.
  2. The second group was also of individuals who were on average, 75 years old. They didn’t have structured exercise regimens, just an occasional walk or round of golf.
  3. The third group? Young exercisers, 25 years old on average, who worked out with the same frequency and length of time as the long-term exercisers.

All participants were assessed in Ball State’s Human Performance Laboratory.

The heart of the findings

The participants’ cardiovascular health was measured by having them cycle on an indoor bike to determine VO2 max, also known as maximal oxygen uptake. This measures the maximum amount of oxygen a person can take in and use during intense exercise, and is an indicator of lung capacity and aerobic fitness.

As the cycling test became increasingly difficult, cyclers breathed into a mouthpiece that measured oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

The results?

Well, one result confirmed what already made intuitive sense.

The people who exercised regularly year after year were in better overall health than their sedentary counterparts.

But the specifics? Wow. Another result knocked it out of the park. “These 75-year-olds,” says Trappe, “men and women—have similar cardiovascular health to a 40- to 45-year-old.”

The muscle in the findings

To determine the aerobic profile of the participants’ muscles, the study took a small tissue sample for a biopsy Lab researchers examined the micro-vessels, or capillaries, that allow blood to flow through the muscle itself, bringing it fresh oxygen.

They also looked for specific enzymes that provide fuel to the working muscle and help break down carbohydrates and fats.

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Looking at the participants from this different angle, they again found a striking, positive result: the longtime exercisers had the muscle and circulatory health of people 30 years younger than their age.

Does this mean we can exercise aging away?

It surely sounds like a major step in that direction. Which would be huge news, as the average adult’s ability to process oxygen declines by about 10 percent per decade after age 30. With that loss, of course, comes decline in virtually all of our major systems. Less oxygen, after all, means less function

“It’s kind of a slow decay over time that’s probably not so noticeable in your 30s or 40s,” says Trappe.

But as years go on, you may have noticed that you’re breathing hard doing things you once cruised through, or you have to stop to catch your breath, or tire far more easily—all of which discourage you from exercise, the best remedy for all of these issues.

So the answer is yes, if regular, long-term exercise can slow or halt that decade-by-decade decline for some people, it’s as if aging really gets stopped in its tracks.

Don’t forget: age-related reductions in cardiovascular and lung capacity are associated with higher risk of many chronic diseases and mortality. Maintaining a strong heart and lung system has been shown to decrease these health risks.

How much exercise do you need?

David Costill, 82, professor emeritus of exercise science at Ball State University is an exercise physiologist. He says he’s spent about 60 years actively exercising, and ran marathons for about 20 years until his knees started to bother him. Then he hit the pool, and has been swimming for the last 35 years.

Costill says he can do a lot more physically than his agemates. “If I’m out with a group of my peers, guys who are near 80, and we’re going someplace, it seems to me they’re all walking at half speed.”

So is 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day is the key to a healthy life?

I’m not one to make blanket statements, so my answer, “Yes,” comes with important caveats. “If you want to do 30 to 45 minutes of walking a day,” says Trappe, the amount of health benefit you are going to get is going to be significant and substantial.”

Hit the ground gently

I wholeheartedly agree, but advise that it’s all relative, all about your start point. If you’re sedentary, or relatively so, 30 to 45 minutes a day is a long leap. You don’t want to push yourself that hard. If it’s even possible for you, it could easily do more harm than good, in the form of strains, sprains, pulled muscles, falls, and the like.

What you want is a gradually increasing number of reasonable challenges to your body. So going from sedentary to 15 minutes of walking a day might be a good start, but if that’s a stretch, even 10 minutes is wonderful.

Continue adding time and degree of challenge when your 10 to 15 minutes a day feels easy. Here’s a handy metric to tell if you’re working hard enough to really get your heart going: if you can’t talk while you exercise, you’re pushing yourself too hard, but if you can sing, you’re taking it too easy.

So you don’t have to run marathons or compete in cycling or speed swimming. You won’t get the same results as those heavy lifters, but I guarantee you’ll start feeling better within days—not least because you have every reason to congratulate yourself for taking charge of your health.


[i] J Appl Physiol (1985). 2018 Nov 1;125(5):1636-1645. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00174.2018. Epub 2018 Aug 30.

JAMA. 2009 May 20;301(19):2024-35. doi: 10.1001/jama.2009.681.

Neighmond, Patty. Exercise Wins: Fit Seniors Can Have Hearts That Look 30 Years Younger. NPR. 12/10/2018

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