The Effects of Exercise on Aging

Are there effects of exercise on aging? We all know our body changes as we get older. Some of these changes start as early as the third decade of life. After age 30, maximum heart rate declines by about one beat per minute, per year, and the heart’s peak capacity to pump blood declines by 5%–10% per decade. 

Starting in middle age, blood vessels begin to stiffen and blood pressure can increase. The blood changes, becoming more viscous (thicker and stickier) and harder to pump through the body.

Most Americans begin to gain weight in midlife, putting on 3–4 pounds a year. This extra fat contributes to a rise in LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and a fall in HDL (“good”) cholesterol. The larger our fat cells become the more resistant they are to insulin. This is why blood sugar levels rise, making type 2 diabetes common in older adults.

We also lose muscle. Our muscles and ligaments become stiff and tight. But the more muscle mass you have as you age, the less that loss will affect you overall. This will reduce your risk of independence-ending falls and arthritis.

Although men have a lower risk of osteoporosis than women, man do lose bone calcium as they age, increasing the risk of fractures. One reason for the drop in muscle mass and bone density is a drop in the male hormone testosterone, which declines by about 1% per year after the age of 40. Though most men continue to have reproductive capacity throughout life, many experience a gradual decline in libido.

The nervous system also changes. Reflexes are slower, coordination suffers, and memory lapses occur. It’s no surprise that spirits often decline as we age.

All this sounds grim and as they say,”aging is not for sissies.” The good news is, we can do something to counter act the effects of aging.

By remaining active, you can reduce arthritic pain, maintain your mobility, help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s, and minimize the limitations of aging. Exercise can do all that. Research repeatedly shows, many of these changes attributed to aging are actually caused in large part by disuse.

Here’s what the newest research tells us:

  • Regular exercise decreases the likelihood of developing arthritis-related disabilities. For people with arthritis, not exercising can make consequences of the disease worse.
  • Men and women — aged 65 years and older — who exercise have a lower risk of losing mobility.
  • Brain function improved for older women who walked only 1 1/2 hours per week.
  • The fitter you are, the lower the risk of brain function decline.
  • Active women aged 54 to 79 years have a 30% less chance of suffering from incontinence than less active women.
  • Working out for as little as 15 minutes, three days a week reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s by 40% and improves executive function.
  • Regular exercise reduces mortality rates by 25% to 33%.
  • Unfit men have a 39% risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
  • Fit people have a death rate four times lower than the unfit.
  • Exercise Decreases inflammation and insulin resistance in the body.

Exercise is crucial in aging, it can actually reverse many of the changes of aging. It improves muscle power, endurance, and reaction time. It increases bone density and improves posture. Exercise is a natural antidepressant and mood elevator.
The most physically active people in a recent study showed signs of being as much as 10 years younger on a cellular level.
Aging experts nearly universally believe that exercise is the key to preventing physical decline and disease that often occurs in our later years. The earlier you integrate healthy behavior patterns into your life, the easier it is to continue it as you grow older.

How does exercise do all of this?


By keeping your telomeres long and healthy. Telomeres are like the plastic tips on shoelaces. But in your body, they cap the ends of the DNA strands (chromosomes) in all our cells. Over time, telomeres can shorten to the point where cells stop regenerating, and even die. Shortened telomeres also leave your chromosomes vulnerable to the kind of damage that may trigger diseases such as cancer. The fact that exercise keeps your cells renewing themselves and protects your DNA should be a great motivator to stay active.

Of all the causes which conspire to render the life of a man short and miserable, none have greater influence than the want of proper exercise.– Dr. William Buchan

So what kind of exercise should you do?

Endurance training. Endurance exercise is the best way to improve cardiovascular function. It helps keep the heart muscle supple and the arteries flexible, lowers the resting heart rate, and boosts the heart’s peak ability to deliver oxygen-rich blood to the body’s tissues. A related benefit is a fall in blood pressure.

Endurance exercise is also the best way to protect the body’s metabolism from the effects of age. It reduces body fat, sensitizes the body’s tissues to insulin, and lowers blood sugar levels. Exercise boosts the HDL (“good”) cholesterol and lowers levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides. It also fights some of the neurological and psychological changes of aging. Endurance exercise boosts mood and improves sleep, countering anxiety and depression. In addition, it improves reflex time and helps stave off age-related memory loss. Research consistently shows, the toll of time is not as severe as the toll of inactivity. To keep your body as young as possible for as long as possible, keep it moving.

Resistance exercise using light weights or exercise machines will enhance muscle mass and strength and preserve bone calcium.

Flexibility training will help keep you supple as you age. Stretching exercises are an ideal way to warm up before and cool down after endurance exercise.

Exercises for balance will help you move gracefully, avoid injuries, and prevent the falls that cripple so many older Americans.

Regular exercise helps people age more slowly and live healthier, more vigorous lives. Maximum benefit does require regular exercise over the years, but it doesn’t mean going to the gym. In fact, just 30 minutes of brisk walking every day will go a long way toward enhancing your health. The key is regular activity. Start slowly if you are out of shape, then build up gradually to 3–4 hours a week. A program as simple as 30 minutes of brisk walking nearly every day will produce major benefits.

Regular exercise prolongs life and reduces the burden of disease and disability in old age.

That which is used develops; that which is not wastes away.” – Hippocrates

If you’re planning to take up a new exercise program to reduce the health risks posed by age-related changes down the road, check with your healthcare professional first.

Exercise precautions

  • Get a medical check-up before you begin an exercise program, particularly if you are older than 40, if you have medical problems, or if you have not exercised previously.
  • Eat and drink appropriately. Don’t eat for two hours before you exercise, but drink plenty of water before, during, and after exercise.
  • Warm up before you exercise and cool down afterward.
  • Use good equipment, especially good shoes.
  • Exercise regularly. Give yourself enough time to recover from injuries and illness — and remember recovery may take longer as you age.
  • Explore a variety of activities to find out what you like. Variety will keep your muscles fresh and will keep you from getting bored. Build a well-rounded program. Add strength training, stretches, balance and endurance exercise.
  • Exercise safely. It makes little sense to reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke by increasing your risk of accidental injury or death.
  • Listen to your body. Learn warning signals of heart disease, including chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, fatigue, or sweating, erratic pulse, lightheadedness, or even indigestion.

Exercise is one way to slow the aging process, but it works best when combined with other measures.

Here are some great tips:

  • Avoid tobacco in all forms.
  • Eat properly. Reduce your consumption of saturated fat, trans fatty acids, and cholesterol.Increase omega-3s and monounsaturated fats in fish, nuts, olive oil, and possibly canola oil. Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nonfat dairy products. Favor complex carbohydrates and high-fiber foods, but reduce your consumption of simple sugars. Cut back on salt and processed foods. Keep your caloric consumption down and stay as lean as possible.
  • Consider simple supplements such as a daily multivitamin.
  • If you choose to drink, limit yourself to two drinks a day.
  • Keep your mind active and stimulated. Mental exercise is a complement to physical exercise.
  • Build strong social networks. People are good medicine at any age.
  • Get regular medical care.
Aging vs. ExerciseEffect of agingEffect of exercise
Heart and circulation
Resting heart rateIncreaseDecrease
Maximum heart rateDecreaseSlows the decrease
Maximum pumping capacityDecreaseIncrease
Heart muscle stiffnessIncreaseDecrease
Blood vessel stiffnessIncreaseDecrease
Blood pressureIncreaseDecrease
Number of red blood cellsDecreaseNo change
Blood viscosity (“thickness”)IncreaseDecrease
Maximum oxygen uptakeDecreaseNo change
Speed of emptyingDecreaseIncrease
Calcium content and strengthDecreaseIncrease
Muscle mass and strengthDecreaseIncrease
Metabolic rateDecreaseIncrease
Body fatIncreaseDecrease
Blood sugarIncreaseDecrease
Insulin levelsIncreaseDecrease
LDL (“bad”) cholesterolIncreaseDecrease
HDL (“good”) cholesterolDecreaseIncrease
Sex hormone levelsDecreaseSlight decrease
Nervous system
Nerve conduction and reflexesSlowerDecrease
Quality of sleepDecreaseIncrease
Risk of depressionIncreaseDecrease
Memory lapsesIncreaseDecrease


Healthy women
Int’l Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA)
National Academy of Sports medicine.
Effects of exercise on cellular and tissue aging ( Health Publishing – Harvard Medical School