Older people who exercise have younger cells than healthy young people who don’t exercise.
Older people who exercise heal faster than healthy young people who don’t.
An exercise-trained older population has better repair mechanisms down to the cellular level.
Older elite athletes exceed the health and fitness of many youth athletes.
But what about more average exercise enthusiasts?
Researchers at Ball State University and its partnered hospital in Indiana decided to look at people in their 70s who aren’t elite competitors, but who had consistently worked out in some respect for the past 50 years: https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/japplphysiol.00174.2018
Their findings confirm that regular exercise (even among non-elite competitors) keeps the musculoskeletal system outrageously youthful into older age. The cardiovascular system was ONLY able to stay about 30 years younger, hence why the New York Times article title doesn’t say “50 years younger”, despite lab results showing no major difference in muscle cells between trained 75-year-olds and healthy 25-year-olds.
Other mammal studies affirm this all the way down to the intracellular level: https://faseb.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1096/fj.201600143RR
Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario found that trained older mice actually had HIGHER capillary to muscle fiber (C/F) ratios than young mice. Literally, trained older mice have more youthful muscle cells than untrained young mice.
As a credentialed and certified strength coach, trainer, and nutritionist with over 65,000 hours of professional experience, I’ve witnessed the equivalent of these researchers’ findings many times. In my own experience, I have findings which EXCEED theirs. That is, I’ve worked with older populations who heal FASTER than youth athletes. Eleven years ago, I observed a cardio-respiratory measurement on a 70-year-old triathlon enthusiast (NOT elite competitor). His measured Vo2 max was 68.0. This EXCEEDS teenage and 20-something competitive athletes: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23118070/
More recently I’ve had the opportunity to witness active older clients heal more rapidly than specific youth athletes or otherwise healthy teens. One of my mid-70s clients IMPROVED fitness at a faster rate post-knee-surgery THAN a teenager in my peer group recovered from a light muscle strain. Elderly active man healed a surgically damaged knee FASTER than healthy teenager recovered from minor muscle strain. Think about that.
Unfortunately, many youth athletes are encouraged to rest completely after even minor strains, which PREVENTS the very capillarization that allows muscle and connective tissue to heal. As we saw in the McMaster mouse study, older populations who exercise have more localized stem cells than youths. Really, dwell on this. Excessive directives to be sedentary actually make the injured tissue MORE fibrotic (aka - older). Meanwhile, elderly athletes who continue to exercise will keep more growth agents nearby, removed damaged tissue and cell waste faster, and overall improve tissue health better than young athletes who are sedentary too long.
Lengthy cardio training makes you fatter. This includes running. If there is no strength training included in a chronic cardio trainers' program, indeed, that person will get light, because he or she is burning off muscle and bone tissue. In 2006 a massive review of over 12,000 runners helped clarify many misconceptions about chronic aerobic exercise, especially running: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2864590/.
The summary is that as we age, we must become MORE active (and there is still a reduced yield of returned results), and that even when chronic exercisers stay very active and maintain the same weight they have a statistically significant increase in waistline. This is why people find that they keep attempting the method which “worked” when they were 20 years younger, and they just keep getting worse results.
It’s not so much that aerobic exercise is always inherently obese-making. It’s that aerobic activity is purely CATAbolic. It breaks down everything, including organs, bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscle. Thus, as we age, we are increasingly liable to lose only lean tissue when we lose weight, resulting in an ever-fatter frame, no matter how hard someone tries. This is the case even for elite ultra-endurance athletes: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3794477/. In fact, they get relatively fatter in only 5 days of an ultra-run. Most people wouldn't notice, since they begin with fairly lean frames. But endurance athletes go UP in body fat percentage the more extensively they train or compete.
How do we combat this?
A small portion of it is an inevitable function of aging. Systemic IGF and other hormones which keep us healthy and protect lean tissue WILL drop as time soldiers forward. This is an incontrovertible biological fact. So we must do everything we can to emphasize overall health and fitness. This means sleep. This means rest. This means recovery. This means heavy weights and sprints. This means protein. This means holistic sensibility.
To clarify, since your body is aching to get worse, you have to send signals which overcome that. This means intensity of exercise MUST go up, not down. And that, of course, will mean more recovery is needed and more nutrients to recover are needed.
In the 2006 survey of over 12,000 runners, we find that even the most avid runners, logging many miles per week, do not IMPROVE on average. If they’re lucky, they maintain weight, but keep losing lean tissue anyway, which ultimately makes them fatter, if only a little.
Sure. There are outliers. But the primary takeaway is this: aerobic conditioning is best utilized to improve cardiovascular health. Body composition is best changed through heavy resistance training/sprints and nutrition. If you love to run, run. If you want to get leanER, don't run.
I had a client who genuinely loved her workouts so much that when work travel interrupted her schedule she had a predictable/precise trend in self-sabotaging nutritional behaviors. When we figured out how to implement SOME sort of enjoyable workout even on her most scattered work weeks, she 100% nailed her food.
That was around 10 years ago. Even before then, I came to believe that a lot of self-assessment can dramatically improve through the lens of budgets. For example, everyone has an inherent daily decision-making budget. Let’s say it’s 12 decisions a person is capable of making in a solid rational and productive fashion. Routines reduce the decision loss, resulting in surpluses. Each successive day can save up more good decisions. Lack of routines and discipline tends to rack up debts. We begin borrowing from the next day. We reach a point in chaos where we not only have no good decision-making capacity left for our day, we’ve borrowed so far into the future self that we BEGIN a day with nothing to spend AND a crushing interest rate that’s overdue.
Rich get richer. Poor get poorer.
Likewise, with enjoyment, when we fail to hit our daily budget, we tend to run a debt. Then we look ahead to weekends, holidays, and vacations (ie - escapes) as a way to forget the debt temporarily. Unsurprisingly, we don’t pay off our debt by ignoring it.
When we combine considerations for the two, we find that the general idea of dieting is a non-starter. On average, people are nowhere near their enjoyment budget and years pre-spent on their decision-making line of credit. Sacrificing food enjoyment and adding more food decisions literally CANNOT work.
Think about this way: if you are at a 1 out of 10 on daily enjoyment requirements, and -37 on what should be 10 remaining good decisions, what is going to happen at the end of a day or week? Naturally, you are going to do whatever is easily available to attempt to rectify the situation. If you get some dopamine high from eating “unplanned” food, that’s what you’ll do. It’s not failure. It’s not weakness. It is a natural consequence of the landscape.
Instead, I encourage people FIRST toward discovering daily joys and low-decision-cost routines. Depending on what type of deficits you’ve been running, it could be a while before you’re reasonably allowed to approach nutrition from sacrifice and subtraction. We have to add enough enjoyment to place the person in a resilient environment. We have to pay off the decision-making debt to a reasonable degree before simply attacking with more decision costs.
If you aren’t close to hitting any enjoyment, you won’t get closer by removing more enjoyable items. If you are overspent on decisions, you won’t make better ones by adding more to each day. The structure you implement has to have a NET improvement. Your mind and body won’t allow anything less.
This is the only reasonable approach.
I’m all for doing difficult things. There’s value in delayed gratification and disciplined drive. But the reason why they work WHEN they work is that those individuals are reducing decision costs by having structure and routine. Those people are learning to take joy in the struggle which they believe will pay off in the future. NO ONE is pushing through when he takes NO joy in the struggle. NO ONE is pushing through WHEN she disbelieves progress is possible.
Tend to your enjoyment. Observe your budgets. And productive fitness and dietary behaviors will become self-evident.