Yep, Running Might Keep You Younger

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Yep, Running Might Keep You Younger

By Karla Bruning

4/9/2018

If I say I want to do a half-marathon, tell me no!" my mom joked during her first 10K to celebrate her upcoming 70th birthday. She'd completed her first 5K just two years earlier.

That my mom was tackling any race at her age—for the first time in her life, too—is impressive. But I wasn't the least bit surprised. My mom always moved at warp speed. As a child, I could never keep up with her gait, even when I surpassed her height by 5 inches. But time has since padded her frame and slowed her stride. She's had to rebound from weight gain ushered by the onset of hypothyroidism, a diabetes diagnosis, and two major surgeries—including one to repair a hole in her eye. But she's stayed active through walking, water aerobics, swimming, and weight training. She targeted that 10K as a motivational goal.

In the process, she lost 15 pounds and her doctor took her off diabetes medication. Her eye doctor also noticed a surprising improvement in her vision and overall eye health.

She's not alone. While running participation has stagnated among millennials, the sport is still growing among older adults. The number of frequent runners 65 and older has grown 56 percent since 2010, with a 23 percent rise among runners 55-64, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. And active masters are reaping the health benefits.

“Just because you're 40, doesn't mean you're 40 years old biologically," says LarryTucker, Ph.D., an exercise science professor at Brigham Young University. “The more physically active we are, the less biological aging takes place in our bodies."

Highly active adults have a nine-year advantage over sedentary folks when it comes to biological age, Tucker discovered in a 2017 study examining the relationship between physical activity and cellular aging. His research, published in the journal, Preventive Medicine, found a direct link between activity and telomere length.

Telomeres are the cellular equivalent of our biological clock. They cap each strand of our DNA, like the plastic coating at each end of a shoelace. As we age, those caps get a little shorter. It's like burning a candle wick. But we can speed up or slow down how quickly that wick burns.

“Telomeres don't shorten at the same rate," Tucker says. Obesity, smoking, poor diet, and type 2 diabetes can speed up the process. Other factors that researchers suspect could affect cellular aging include depression, stress, and poor sleep.

Using data from the CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Tucker calculated the physical activity levels of nearly 6,000 adults ages 20 to 84, looking at 62 possible activities from walking and running to mowing the lawn and raking leaves. Perhaps most surprisingly, he found little difference in telomere length between sedentary people and those who were moderately active. The most active people were still seven years younger biologically than those in the moderate category.

So just how active do you need to be to erase almost a decade from your biological age?

“It takes lots of activity to truly reduce biological aging," Tucker says. “Get out for at least 30 minutes a day, but an hour a day is even better. If you can't run, then walk. When you can't walk, bicycle. And if you can't bicycle, swim. In other words, you just have to keep finding ways to keep moving. That's forever. At 70 and at 90, too."

But your sweat sessions don't have to be vigorous.

“You can be highly active without doing highly intense activity," Tucker says. “Start with something and do it every day. No matter what age a person is, they are going to derive tremendous benefits."

For Sandie Hall, 70, that something was walking.

“When our oldest son ran a marathon at Disney World I repeated a phrase I'd said many times: 'I can't run, but I can walk!'" says the Groton, Massachusetts, resident. “He proceeded to tell me that many people walk that race, so I started walking every day. And so began my journey out of my comfort zone and on to better things."

She finished her first half-marathon at Walt Disney World at the age of 64 and her first marathon at 67 using a run-walk method.

Subsequently, Hall's doctor took her off the osteoporosis medication she'd been taking for eight years, and drastically reduced her dosage of high blood pressure medication, after battling it for 10 years.

“I will never be fast, but that's okay with me," Hall says. “My resting heart rate is lower, my breathing is better, and I have more energy to keep up with my 11 grandchildren."

It seems the inevitable slow-down we associate with aging might not be so inevitable after all.

“Decades of research support the fact that much age-related deterioration is the result of the effects of sedentary lifestyles and the development of medical conditions rather than of aging itself," a 2014 review published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons found. “A continually growing body of basic science and clinical evidence demonstrates how active persons modulate physical decline through training."

Not only has Richard Hefner of Gastonia, North Carolina, slowed the physical decline of age, he has outperformed his younger self. Hefner started running at the age of 56 after encouragement from his daughter.

“I accepted her offer to go for a run and was surprised that I could just run a few steps before I was completely out of breath and had to stop and walk," Hefner says. “For some reason I thought I was still in pretty good shape even though I hadn't exercised in years."

Now 65, Hefner has lost 50 pounds and has completed more than 400 races, including a streak of 105 sub-2 hour half-marathons. His personal best? A blazing 1:29:25, set at the age of 62. “I feel better than ever at 65," Hefner says.

Between the ages of 40 and 65 might be a critical time to slow the ticking clock, according to a 2015 study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise investigating the link between exercise and telomere length. Researchers found the strongest correlation between increased activity and decreased odds of short telomeres during that time of life. "This may be an important age group in which targeted PA (physical activity) interventions should be developed, implemented, and evaluated," the authors conclude.

But even if you're past that benchmark research shows that it's never too late to get a leg up. Even previously sedentary seniors who started to exercise at least once a week had lower rates of chronic disease, depression, physical disability, and cognitive impairment than their inactive peers. Researchers examined nearly 3,500 seniors over the course of 8 years for a 2014 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

“Significant health benefits were even seen among participants who became physically active relatively late in life," the authors conclude.

As an exercise science professor, Tucker has been examining the intersection of lifestyle and health for over 35 years.

“You name every system of the body and we as scientists have studied how physical activity improves that system at the macular and molecular level," he says. “We know that regular, regular physical activity has remarkable benefits at any age."

Author Bruce Grierson spent four years studying masters athletes like 90-something track phenomenon Olga Kotelko. His prescription for the fountain of youth?

“Break a sweat, daily and differently, with others," Grierson writes in, “What Makes Olga Run?" Run and jump and throw things, he explains. Create routines, but also break them. Keep it fresh, but keep moving. “Following that advice alone would make a world of difference in the quality of life of everyone over 65, in just about every way you can think of: energy, mood, cognition, libido, sleep patterns, and yes, longevity," he concludes.

Tucker agrees. “Exercise is medicine," he says. "Push yourself, because physical activity is definitely one of the most important things people can do for a healthy life."

Now 71, my mom is training for her next 5K, along with weekly strength training and pool sessions. She often has to produce her driver's license to get senior discounts, mistaken for someone in her 50s.

And she loves it

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