Can exercise prevent ageing?


Singapore is bracing for a rapidly ageing population in the decades to come, with healthcare facilities here slated to expand and cater to a predicted increase in treatment for age-related diseases. Ageing can be a daunting prospect, not just for the policymakers and institutions preparing for a greying population, but for the people themselves.

Unsurprisingly, nobody looks forward to experiencing a decline in their mobility, general health or cognitive processes. What if you didn't have to? Exercise and leading an active lifestyle has long been presumed to delay the ageing process and help one stay in prime physical and mental health. Has the time come to elevate this hearsay to scientific fact?

The science behind how exercise slows ageing

Most people have known for a while that there’s a general increase link between exercise and longevity. New research provides an explanation for this relationship: exercise maintains our immune system’s youth and effectiveness. British studies found that in physically active seniors, the size of their thymus (the organ responsible for creating immunity T-cells) was significantly larger than that of their non-active counterparts.

In fact, the size of their thymus and the rate at which T-cells were produced was comparable to that of much younger people! So, should we start exercising when we get older? The answer is no – the results of this new research points to the importance of lifelong exercise. Our thymus starts shrinking when we hit our early 20s, which is a big indicator of how we should start exercising regularly ASAP. A stronger immunity isn’t all we get from regular exercise; our mental health benefits too!

Can exercise prevent ageing 1Photo: Active Health

The link between regular exercise and improved brain functioning

One of the scariest side-effects of ageing is the possibility of contracting conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer's. The idea of forgetting everyone you know and even your own identity is extremely frightening, especially because we can’t really control our brain’s degeneration… or can we? Regular exercise has been scientifically proven to improve our brain’s cognitive and executive functions, psychomotor speed and memory.

A reduction in these brain functions is linked to dementia, so regular exercise throughout your life will go a long way towards keeping your mental health in the green and allay the possibility of dementia. The benefits of exercise on your mental health can start even from your mid-20s. An American study found that people who exercised regularly performed significantly better on memory tests had higher control over executive functions, and had a strong psychomotor relationship between their thoughts and their movements.

Important things to note before you start exercising

It’s clear that exercise can really be the answer to semi-perpetual youth that keeps our bodies and minds in the pink of health. But before you jump straight into daily exercise routines, there are some important points to note that will help ease the transition into an active lifestyle.

• Progressive, gradual build-ups

The longer you haven’t exercised, the slower you should take it at the start. Many people refuse to exercise because they feel like they haven’t done it in forever and are too old to start now. That’s not true at all! However, starting at an older age means you will most likely have a weaker aerobic base, so it’s necessary to take it slow and steady and start with lower-intensity aerobic exercises.

• Stay injury-free by keeping within safe limits

Injuries go hand-in-hand with recklessness, so make sure you don’t overestimate your limits and take on workouts that are too vigorous for you. It’s best to consult a doctor or personal trainer that will offer you advice on what forms of training are most suitable for you, whether it’s balance or strength training.

• Keep it simple

You don’t have to sign up for expensive packages at a boutique gym or install a full set of exercise equipment in your home. Exercise doesn’t have to be fancy or elaborate – simple activities like jogging along the beach or taking the stairs regularly are good enough starts. Besides, lots of everyday objects can make for good makeshift exercise equipment too! Large stadium seats can be a good place for triceps dips, and ordinary drink cartons can make for efficient makeshift weights. If you'd like something a little more targeted, community/neighbourhood exercise parks/corners make for great places to do affordable but effective workouts.

• Don’t compare the past with the present

A mistake that many people make is bench-marking their present level of fitness against that of their younger selves. Most of us can’t be as fast or strong as we used to. While there is nothing wrong with pushing your limits safely, it's important to recognise how your body has changed over the years. Instead, focus on what is current as the level of activity your body would benefit from now isn’t the same as that of a younger person.

• Find your tribe

Exercising together with others is much better than doing it alone. When you’re struggling to finish that last set or jog that last few hundred metres, some social support really makes the difference! It’s easy to find a like-minded group of fitness enthusiasts if you participate actively in social events, such as joining interest clubs or signing up for community centre lessons.

With these tips in mind, your exercise plans will be much more practical and easier to sustain in the long run. But what exactly should go into your exercise routines? As mentioned in the points earlier, aerobic exercises such as swimming or slow jogs are great for building up a strong and stable base. What’s even more important, however – especially if you’re starting to exercise only at an older age – is to focus on muscle and bone strength. These are essential areas to work on because they prevent injuries; not just during sports but also on a day-to-day basis.

Can exercise prevent ageing 2Photo: Active Health

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Training muscle strength

Don’t worry, you don't have to follow the routine of a professional bodybuilder if your goal is to build strong muscles! Muscle strengthening simply means training your body's ability to handle load and tension, and it has numerous health benefits such as controlling your blood pressure, preventing heart disease and most importantly, reducing the risk of arthritis and joint problems. It’s important to incorporate aspects of strength training into your exercise schedule because we start to see a decrease in muscle mass, at an average rate of about 3-5% upon reaching our 30s. You don’t have to train your muscles every day – experts recommend 2-3 sessions per week, with a focus on intensity. Protocols like high-intensity interval training tend to yield more results over a shorter period of time. What goes into a session? If you're just starting out, simply doing about two or three sets of the following activities for 8-12 repetitions each is sufficient.

  • Leg press: This trains the quadriceps and hamstrings in your legs and the glutes in your posterior. Strong muscles in these areas can help to better absorb your body weight and reduce pressure on the knees and ankles.
  • Assisted chin-up: This helps to strengthen the muscles in your back, shoulders and arms, making it easier for you to carry loads around such as your groceries.
  • Push-up: This trains your shoulders, chest, triceps and your core. There are many ways to scale this popular exercise to individual strength levels as well.

There are many other machines available in most regular gyms for strength training, which are really good for you because machines provide a stable training platform for people who don’t have a strong base. These machines may look daunting at first, so it’s best if you engage a trainer to instruct you on proper usage. As you progress, you'll be able to move on to free-weight/unassisted exercises like squats and pull-ups – those are your big bang-for-buck exercises!

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Training bone strength

Osteoporosis is a bone-related disease that can come with advanced age. Having weak bones increases your susceptibility to experiencing fractures, which make daily life really inconvenient. Aside from practising proper nutrition, weight-bearing and weight-resisting exercises can also help to strengthen your bones while building up your fitness at the same time. Weight-bearing exercises focus on supporting your body weight through your legs or arms, so you can easily achieve these through activities like jogging or air squats.

Can exercise prevent ageing 3Photo: Active Health

Weight-resisted exercises involve some strength training as you are pushing your body’s ability to overcome resistance, such as by using resistance bands or dumbbells. Together, both work your muscles and your bones and help to build up the strength that will keep your physical condition stable and robust. The most important thing to note when planning exercises is to account for your own bone density and strength – if you have fragile bones, avoid high-impact exercises like jogging or tennis, and try for simpler activities like ballroom dancing, swimming (the water supports your weight so less pressure is exerted on your bones) or even  Tai Chi. There’s a reason why Tai Chi is so popular among the elderly – it’s great for posture and balance and doesn’t overload your muscles and bones!

Getting back to regular exercising after years of little to no activity can be intimidating at first, but it’s necessary to take these first steps towards lifelong fitness and health. Your lifestyle doesn’t have to change dramatically to accommodate this; simple and sustainable practices are usually good enough. Everyone has differing muscle strength and aerobic fitness levels, so it’s hard to prescribe a standard workout. Instead, get some personalised tips from our fitness experts at our Active Health Labs so that you'll be able to experience a workout routine that will truly meet your needs and help you achieve your targets.

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Topics: Physical Activity, Seniors