For the past sixty plus years, we have known that exercise—in almost all forms—is beneficial to health. The European Guidelines on Cardiovascular Disease Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans all recommend that healthy individuals engage in 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes of high intensity exercise, such as jogging. But recent research has also hinted that there may be added benefit from pushing yourself intermittently, at least a little extra, bringing about changes deep within our body’s cells—those tiny building blocks that constitute all of us. Exemplifying this idea is the case of Robert Marchand, a diminutive French centenarian who took up competitive cycling as a retiree and began setting age-group records. After he was advised to add intermittent strenuous pedaling, Mr. Marchand decisively bettered his own records and, at the age of 103, set a new world mark for the most miles pedaled in an hour by a centenarian.
His efforts help to refute entrenched beliefs about older people, that physical performance and aerobic capacity inevitably decline with age and that intense exercise is inadvisable and does not apply to the elderly.
For instance, one study disclosed that frail elderly mice were capable of completing high-intensity running on little treadmills. After four months of this kind of training, the exercised animals were stronger and more aerobically fit than other mice of the same age, especially if that exercise was supplemented with high-intensity interval training.
Extending these observations to people, scientists at the Mayo Clinic compared differences in gene expression inside muscle cells after younger and older people had completed various types of workouts. The greatest differences were seen in the operations of genes after people had practiced high-intensity interval training for 12 weeks. In younger people who exercised this way, almost 275 genes were firing differently now than they had been before the exercise. But in people older than 64, more than 400 genes were working differently now and many of those genes are known to be related to the health and aging of cells. In effect, the intense exercise seemed to be changing muscle cells in ways that theoretically could affect biological aging.
At this point, I should probably pause and explain that intensity in exercise is a relative concept. The word intense can seem daunting, but in practice, it simply means physical activity that is not a cinch for you.
For medical purposes, intensity is based on percentages of someone’s heart rate maximum. But you can ignore these technicalities and pay attention to how you feel. Exercise is easy if you can talk and sing while participating in it.
During relatively moderate exercise, singing becomes difficult.
And during intense exercise, you will find it difficult to speak without gasping.
We all should get regular exercise, but no matter what your routine, you might consider increasing its pace for a few minutes at a time, until you no longer can easily converse. The latest science suggests that your cells will thank you.
But as always, the most compelling exercise-related research this year reminds us that activity of any kind is essential for human well-being. One study of 2017 found that people reported feeling happiest during the day when they had been up and moving compared to when they had remained seated and still. The benefits of exercise extend even to those suffering from various degrees of depression, providing with another means to combat this malady.
Another memorable study concluded that, statistically, an hour spent running could add about seven hours to our life spans. These gains are not infinite. They seem to be capped at about three years of added life for people who run regularly.
But these results should inspire all of us. If Mr. Marchand can gain fitness and speed after turning 100, that should be incentive to all of us with still a half-century or more to spare.
And even if we don’t succeed in adding years to our lives, we can at least add life to our years!