Exercise the elixir of youth

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19 August 2019

Two people playing tennis

When we’re young, exercise often comes naturally. Most kids happily run around all day without even thinking about it. As we get older, though, something changes. We become busier with work, social obligations and family pressures, and fitness suffers as a result. But in a society that’s seemingly obsessed with youthfulness (the global anti-ageing market is worth more than $40 billion and growing about five per cent per year), medical science shows it’s exercise that can keep us young – no magic pills required.

Before we go on, let’s recap the current general guidelines for exercise for all ages is at least 30 minutes’ moderate-intensity activity most days of the week, with strength exercises at least twice a week.

Exercise keeps you young at heart, literally

A 2018 US study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed regular exercisers in their 70s had similar heart health to younger exercisers. And one UK study found cyclists aged 55-80 didn’t lose muscle mass or strength, didn’t have increased cholesterol levels and didn’t have an impaired immune system. “There are so many benefits to exercising throughout your life, especially as you age,” says Martha Lourey-Bird, sports and exercise scientist. “It gives you more energy, helps you sleep and relax, and also helps control blood pressure, cholesterol, bone and joint problems, and weight as metabolism slows down,” adds Lourey-Bird. “The emphasis on weight isn’t aesthetic, though,” she notes. “Weight gain is associated with health risks, such as heart disease and stroke.”

Exercise as a form of medicine

Dr John Mayhew, New Zealand Warriors rugby league team doctor and member of the Best Doctors global network of specialists agrees. “Exercise has benefits at all ages,” he says. “The fitter we are, often the more resilient we are,” he says. “Exercise is used as a way of treating depression, protects against heart disease and can help people with cancer,” says Dr Mayhew. “It may not cure cancer, but exercise helps with some side effects and may extend longevity.”

“Many other health conditions can be managed with exercise, including asthma, type 2 diabetes and arthritis,” says Dr Mayhew. “A good exercise program is beneficial even for people with established arthritis, and keeping your weight stable can help to avoid joint replacements,” he adds.

Exercise can slow the ageing process

Ageing can come with an increased risk of falls and injury – the Australian and New Zealand Falls Prevention Society says about 30 per cent of adults 65-plus experience at least one fall per year. There’s also a greater inability to move around more freely, such as getting in and out of a car or bed, but this can be combated with regular exercise. “As you age, you naturally start to lose muscle, and movement in your joints decreases,” says Lourey-Bird. “It’s critical to use it, or you lose it,” she says.
“In the 70-plus age group, being active can also decrease the risk of osteoporosis and can help people stay mobile and independent,” says Dr Mayhew.

Is there a best type of exercise?

“For too long people have been obsessed with cardio training, such as running,” says Dr Mayhew. “But you can get cardiovascular benefits from regular resistance training,” he says. A recent Harvard University study found middle-aged men who could do 40 push-ups had a 96 per cent reduction in cardiovascular-related health incidents compared to those who performed less than 10 push-ups.

“We want people to be active in as many ways as possible,” says Lourey-Bird. “If people haven’t exercised in a while, walking is a good place to start but moderate-intensity activity can include any movement such as brisk walking, working in the garden, going for a swim, or riding a bike,” she says.

There are three other areas of focus as people age: strength training, mobility and flexibility exercises, and balance work. “You can do weights or resistance training at a gym or at home using little weights or resistance bands,” says Lourey-Bird. “There can be a lot of carrying of grandchildren, so you need to stay strong!” she adds. “Given range of movement decreases as we age, keeping mobility up is really important,” says Lourey-Bird. “That can come in the form of yoga, tai chi or simple stretching after you’ve come home from a walk,” she explains.

Balance exercises can help prevent the risk of falls. “While waiting for the kettle to boil, hold one hand on the kitchen bench and slowly raise your heels – one at a time if both is too difficult at first,” recommends Lourey-Bird.

“With all these activities, the aim is to minimise the time people spend doing nothing, because regular activity can really improve the quality of one’s life,” adds Lourey-Bird.

About Best Doctors

With an eligible policy from MLC Life Insurance, you and certain of your family members can access Best Doctors – a service which connects you with a network of more than 50,000 leading medical specialists from Australia and around the world for a second medical opinion when you need it most, helping to ensure you have the right diagnosis and treatment plan. Learn more about Best Doctors.


  1. https://www.reuters.com/brandfeatures/venture-capital/article?id=47743
  2. https://www.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/japplphysiol.00174.2018?journalCode=jappl&
  3. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180308143123.htm
  4. http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/health-pubhlth-strateg-phys-act-guidelines
  5. http://www.anzfallsprevention.org/info/
  6. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2724778
  7. https://health.gov/news/blog/2011/04/physical-activity-and-prevention-of-falls-in-older-adults/
  8. https://www.marthaloureybird.com.au/about/

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