Should You Exercise More As You Age? New Research Says ‘Yes’

The good news is that even if you haven’t been on that track yourself, it’s never too late to start.

we evolved to get more active as we age
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  • New research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that humans evolved to maintain a high degree of activity as we age.
  • Some people think they need to rest more as they get older, but the opposite is actually true: cycling, strength training, yoga, hiking, and swimming are among activities that are ideal for seniors.

    Although humans might be tens of thousands of years past the hunter-gatherer days, the forces that shaped health for them are just as valid now, according to new research in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. One major example, researchers suggest, is maintaining a high degree of activity as we age.

    Despite previous assumptions that our ancestors had short lifespans, that’s been disproven by fossils indicating it was common for people to live into their 70s, the researchers note. They found that exercise likely had notable benefits that enabled longer life. These benefits include enhanced blood flow, reduce fat storage, efficient repair of DNA processes, and release of anti-inflammatory compounds.

    All of these processes enabled hunter-gatherers to live for decades past their reproductive years. In what researchers call the “active grandparent hypothesis,” they suggest that evolution favored humans who engaged in lifelong physical activity, because it reduces vulnerability to chronic disease.

    “As a result, extended human healthspans and lifespans are both a cause and effect of habitual physical activity, helping explain why lack of lifelong physical activity in humans can increase disease risk and reduce longevity,” they write in their conclusions.

    But even with evolution on your side, what if you’ve been skipping the impulse to stay active as the years pass? Or maybe you’ve been riding regularly, but don’t feel quite as ramped up physically as your hunter-gatherer ancestors might have been. The good news is that it’s never too late to catch up. Plenty of research highlights that moving more in general as you get older can come with benefits like a stronger cardiovascular and respiratory system, as well as improved immune function.

    But one caveat is that you’ll likely need to ease in more than you would in your earlier decades, according to Neel Anand, M.D., professor of orthopedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles.

    “Some people think they need to rest more as they get older—especially if they develop osteoarthritis—but the opposite is true for building bone density,” he told Bicycling. “Get on your feet and move, for at least 10 minutes every hour.”

    Setting goals and maintaining a consistent schedule are helpful, but he suggests that simply increasing the variety and enjoyment of physical activity should be a first step.

    “You don’t need to plan on hours at the gym—start with a walk or hiking,” he said. “Mix in some simple weight lifting a few times a week, and that means lighter weights with higher reps. Try yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates, swimming, biking—don’t overthink it, just move.”

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