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I think we all know that exercise extends lifespan. However, the lack of attention in receives in the health and longevity community is somewhat puzzling.
The talk of drugs, supplements and fasting to promote autophagy, reverse age related symptoms and active sirtuins is deafening. On the flip side, the discussion around physical activity has stagnated and seems to be only of interest to the fitness community.
I wrote this article to discuss theories around why exercise is underrated and provide evidence demonstrating its efficacy in extending lifespan. It’s an informative piece that aims to educate, inspire and provoke some thoughts that may lead to long-term behaviour change.
What’s the state of longevity research so far?
The field of longevity research has largely been focused on supplements, drugs and procedures. It’s probably not surprising, given the vast amounts of money up for grabs.
In fact, the ‘complementary and alternative medicine for anti-aging and longevity market is expected to reach $129.8 billion by the year 2028, according to a recent report by Grand View Research.
Enticing figures like these have led to a boom in anti-aging research, with the predominant focus on finding compounds that can reverse the effects of age related decline. Exercise memetics, senolytics and mTor inhibitors have all seen huge research and investment from big players looking to capitalize on the public’s desire for life-extending pills.
Despite the huge investment, big claims and large advertising campaigns, the actual results still pale in comparison to simple lifestyle interventions.
Nutrition, sleep, stress management, community and most importantly exercise have all shown significant improvements on healthspan and lifespan that exceed the ability of drugs and supplements…
Exercise extends lifespan: What the data suggests
The fact that exercise can extend lifespan is not news. In fact, a compelling literature review completed in 2012 concluded that ‘all-cause mortality is decreased by about 30% to 35% in physically active as compared to inactive subjects’.
The review also found that ‘all studies reported a higher life expectancy in physically active subjects, ranging from 0.43 to 6.9 years’.
If a supplement was offering up to 6.9 years of lifespan extension, with the only side effect being improved quality of life, wouldn’t everyone be rushing out to their local health store?
How does exercise extend lifespan?
- Improved cardiorespiratory fitness. Regular exercise improves the capacity of the heart and lungs to supply oxygen to the muscle. This improved fitness has shown inverse correlation with long-term mortality.
- Reduced inflammation. Studies show that chronic inflammation (or ‘inflammaging’) exacerbates the aging process. Fortunately, lifelong exercise has been shown to prevent inflammation in the blood and muscle.
- Prevents sarcopenia. Age-related muscle loss is strongly associated with increased risk of mortality amongst older individuals. Performing regular resistance training has shown to be effective at preserving muscle function and preventing frailty.
- Prevents cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that’s often brought about by cognitive decline. It’s ranked as the 7th leading cause of death in the US and is strongly associated with decreased life expectancy. The drug market has so far failed to make a big impact on this disease, but exercise has been shown to reduce global cognitive decline and is probably the best intervention we have.
- Reduces risk of multiple diseases. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and stroke all come with a significant risk of early mortality. We have great data from a multitude of studies suggesting that your risk of developing one of these chronic diseases significantly drops with regular physical activity.
- Improved mitochondrial health. Often referred to as the energy producing ‘power houses’ of our cells, mitochondria are vital for our long-term health and a decline in their quality and activity is associated with aging. However, regular exercise has been shown to regulate mitochondrial respiration, which contributes to longevity.
- Improves sleep. Human longevity is associated with regular sleep patterns and maintenance of deep sleep. Fortunately, exercise has been touted as an effective treatment to improve sleep quality and has long been associated with better sleep.
- Improves mood. It’s not just a myth that happy people tend to live longer. In fact, we have data suggesting that people with more positive feelings are 35% less likely to die within 5 years. Interestingly, exercise has been shown to have a positive impact on anxiety, depression and mood.
- Reduces blood glucose variability. Large fluctuations in blood glucose levels have been shown to increase mortality, with centenarians showing low fluctuation in blood glucose levels. One method that has been shown to stabilize blood glucose is exercise (aerobic and resistance training).
How many people are exercising enough to extend lifespan?
The figures around exercise, or to put it more accurately ‘lack of exercise’, are shocking. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) sets a conservative recommendation of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise and two strength training sessions per week.
However, according to data released by the CDC (US); only 53.3% of adults surpassed the minimum threshold for aerobic activity. That number fell to 23.3% when they looked at those who met both aerobic and strength training recommendations.
These are shocking statistics given the incredible benefits we have already discussed. In addition, that’s just the minimum amount of exercise that’s required to maintain health. I dread to think what the statistics would be for those performing the optimal amount of exercise.
What is the optimal amount of exercise to extend lifespan?
It’s safe to say that the ‘optimal’ amount of exercise is a fair amount more than the minimum prescribed by the CDC. However, it’s not that much more…
The answer to this question has been discussed in detail in my previous post: How much should you exercise for longevity?
If you’re looking for a quick answer, here is a rundown of the protocol I use with my clients looking to obtain maximum health and lifespan benefits:
- 12,000 steps per day.
- 160 minutes moderate-intensity exercise per week.
- 72 minutes high-intensity exercise per week.
- 120 minutes strength training per week.
It’s worth noting that going above these recommendations may provide further benefit. However, the returns will be diminishing and may even be detrimental if exercise is taken to the extreme and recovery is not considered.
Why aren’t people exercising enough to extend lifespan?
Being sedentary has become the ‘new normal’. This is a devastating blow to a health care system that’s under increasing pressure. I would also argue that optimal physical activity is also missing from the longevity protocols of many self-proclaimed ‘health enthusiasts’ and ‘biohackers’.
So what are the reasons that this incredibly powerful longevity tool has fallen by the wayside?
- Sedentary work environment. More people are working in front of screens than ever before. Those once aspiring to be farmers or mechanics have now switched their attention to jobs working in tech, sales or any number of jobs that involve sitting for 8 hours per day.
- Sedentary lifestyle. Walking to the shop or taking the stairs appear to have become a thing of the past for most people. Sitting on sofas, driving cars and food delivery services have dramatically reduced the step count of most individuals.
- A belief that medicine is what matters. The idea of exercising to improve health sounds less appealing than taking medication for many people. The health care system is set up to treat disease through drugs, rather than promote healthy longevity through movement.
- It takes time. The modern world has left people feeling increasingly ‘time poor’. Many feel they can’t donate 4/5 hours per week to exercise. I would like to ask them how much time they spend watching Netflix…
- It’s hard. Exercise requires mental strength and determination. It hurts, it’s challenging and it’s difficult. The human body is designed to seek comfort, and voluntary exercise flies in the face of that.
- Supplement companies have skewed our perception. Many people who don’t exercise also have a ‘supplement protocol’ that involves upwards of 5 products. Some believe that taking pills and powders is the most important part of extending lifespan. In reality, it’s a very small part of the equation.
- It’s too expensive. This is a ridiculous argument. Almost anyone can go out running, walking or perform push-ups at home. You don’t need the latest fitness tracker or running shoes. You just need to get up off the sofa.
- People don’t recognize the benefits. The undeniable benefits are underrated by most people. Hopefully this article goes some way to rectifying that.
- Exercise is not promoted enough. There is little money to be made by promoting exercise. It’s far more lucrative for companies to promote drugs, supplements and surgeries.
What are the key takeaways from this article?
- Most people are not exercising enough to promote health and longevity.
- Exercise is more potent than any of the drugs or supplements we currently have in regards to extending life.
- Check that you’re exercising enough before spending your money on pills and powders.
- Learn about how much exercise is optimal for lifespan extension and then stick to a plan.
- Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Just do the best you can, even some exercise is better than none.
Why did I write this article?
Anyone that follows my work will know the importance I place on lifestyle interventions to extend lifespan and healthspan. I feel like exercise is the ‘low hanging fruit’ that most people chasing longevity are overlooking, and that’s something I would like to change.
The amount of questions I get around minor dietary details, which supplements to take and whether you should obtain the latest off-label longevity drug are staggering. However, the amount of questions I get around exercise and it’s ability to extend life are far too infrequent.
The majority of people I work with on a daily basis are taking a handful of supplements and putting restrictive dietary patterns into practice. However, they’re not even meeting the recommended amount of exercise suggested by myself or mainstream medicine.
All I ask is that before you go out and blow your budget on pills; make sure you’re at least getting the right amount of movement. In fact, maybe we should put a rule in place that you’re only qualified to talk about longevity drugs if you’re exercising more than 5 hours per week…
So why did I actually write this article? My bias is that I want people to live long, healthy and happy lives. I’m not funded by drugs or supplements. I’m just motivated by the success of those I work with and I hope this will make some folks think twice about whether their actions align with their health goals.