A buddy of mine was showing me photos from the 1980’s when he was a paratrooper in the Army. He was a much leaner, meaner version of his current self back then, training hard but also playing hard. Now, in his 50’s, he’s easily 75 pounds heavier, tires easily, and is diabetic. Was his decline in health an inevitable consequence of aging?
I was recently doing some shore diving in Florida and each day, a guy walked up to the beach with a pair of dumbbells in hand. He looked like he was in his 50’s, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was 60 or even 70. He would go through a total body routine with the dumbbells and also did push-ups and ab work. Sometimes we’d be in the water over an hour. When we came out, he was often still there. This guy was a beast. I wouldn’t want to mess with him.
So what’s the difference between the beach guy and my former Army friend? Exercise.
As we age, our bodies change. As early as our mid to late twenties, we start to see reduction in our heart’s ability to pump blood. By 35, we start to see a decline in bone size and density. In our 40’s, most Americans begin gaining about 3-4 pounds of fat per year. I can go on and on. If you’d like to read the whole depressing list, click here.
In short, there is a natural decline in health as we age. But this decline can be slowed down and maybe even reversed.
In 400 BC, Hippocrates said “All parts of the body which have a function, if used in moderation and exercised in labors in which each is accustomed, become thereby healthy, well developed and age more slowly, but if unused they become liable to disease, defective in growth and age quickly.” Science has proven what Hippocrates knew to be true.
In 1966, five healthy 20-year-old volunteers participated in a University of Texas Southwestern Medical School study in Dallas. Their assignment, stay in bed resting for three weeks. Baseline exercise measurements and blood work were taken prior to the study. After just three weeks of inactivity, the 20-year-olds showed many physical characteristics of men twice their age, including faster resting heart rates, higher blood pressure, reduced heart pumping ability, a rise in body fat, and reduction in muscle strength.
After the 3-week study, the men were put on an 8-week exercise program. The exercise program not only reversed the deterioration brought on by the bed rest, but in some cases, the men were healthier and performed better than before the study.
30 years later, the original five research subjects were again studied. Three decades post college had not been kind. The men were an average 50 pounds heavier, their body fat doubled to an average of 28%, resting heart rate was increased, and heart-pumping capacity diminished. However, even though their health had noticeably declined, it was not nearly as bad as the result of their three weeks of bed rest in their 20s.
The men were put on a six-month exercise regimen. At the end of those six months, while the men only registered a 10-pound reduction in body fat, their heart rate, blood pressure, and heart pumping ability were at their 20-year-old base lines. Starting an exercise program helped erase 100% of the ill effects of 30 years of decline.
Another study at the University of Birmingham and King’s College in London looked at avid cyclists, aged 55-79. The cyclists did not show the normal loss in muscle mass and strength, or the rise in cholesterol or body fat that inactive people their age normally show. The cyclists were also showing production of T cells, immune cells important for fighting disease and illness, akin to levels found in much younger people.
What’s the take away? Staying active and working out is the key to maintaining health and slowing the body’s natural decline in function. Also, it’s never too late to start or get back into it. And, as a side note, the Dallas study shows the harmful effects of bed rest. If you or a family member is out of commission due to surgery or an illness, it is important to get up and move as much, and as soon, as possible.
I hope to still be scuba diving when I’m 70 and maybe I’ll see a few of you fighting the clock, pumping iron on the beach when I get out of the water.