“It’s not the years, honey – it’s the mileage,” Indiana Jones once reminded us all, shortly after beating up a bunch of Nazis, outrunning a boulder, hurdling a spike-pit, toppling a giant statue and winning a sword fight against a much younger man.
Of course, Dr Jones had an advantage – he’d had at least one swig from the Holy Grail – but on the off-chance that the whole ‘cup of a carpenter’ thing was pure placebo, there’s another explanation for his perennial sprightliness. Maybe, just maybe, all that vigorous exercise was actually keeping him young.
That, at least, is the encouraging conclusion being drawn by modern scientists. In a recent study of septuagenarians by researchers from Ball State University in Indiana, it turned out that the most active men and women in the group had much higher aerobic capacities than most people their age – making them, according to the authors, biologically about 30 years younger than their chronological ages. In fact, they weren’t far away in capillary counts and levels of certain muscular enzymes from a group of active 20-year-olds recruited to act as a control.
Yes, the study participants were people who started exercising regularly during the jogging boom of the ’70s. However – and this is where less-active readers can take heart – most of the participants rarely or never competed, suggesting that pushing things to the limit isn’t necessary for positive adaptations.
The benefits, according to the research, are manifold. Other studies suggest that ageing triathletes retain much more muscle – and develop far less fatty tissue – than their inactive counterparts. At least one 100-year-old man has finished a marathon, and the 42km record for a man over 70 is an incomprehensible 2:55 – record holder Ed Whitlock, incidentally, was a competitive runner at school, but then gave it up and didn’t start again until he was 41. See? There’s hope!
Training as you age also seems to maintain bone density and fight the onset of osteoarthritis, and there’s even evidence to suggest that it can offer protective effects against dementia. And while you’re unlikely to stay competitive against young athletes in their prime, staying busy seems to ensure that your inevitable decline looks more like a gentle slope than a ski jump.
The best time to start training, it turns out, was 30 years ago – but the second-best time is today. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to a real Holy Grail.
Your anti-ageing workout rules
Try these science-backed tips to get the best out of your training sessions.
1. Mix up cardio and weights
It’s important to do both – cardio exercise keeps your heart and lungs in good shape as you age, while resistance training prevents muscles from dwindling. Find a type you like. It’s great if you like grabbing your trainers for a wintry dash through your local park, but if that doesn’t appeal, consider investing in a rowing machine and cranking through the odd 5km while you watch Netflix (subtitles on, obviously – rowers are loud).
For weights, anything from all-out powerlifting to doing the big shop yourself will help.
2. Keep it low-impact
In the triathlon study, cycling performance declined less with age than running – possibly because running’s repeated impacts aren’t as friendly on ageing joints. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of gentle impact as you age, but swap out box jumps and clap push-ups for less-jarring options that work the same muscle groups, such as kettlebell swings and medicine-ball throws, respectively.
3. Work on your balance
Decreasing muscular strength and joint flexibility means balance can suffer as you age – and if you can’t stand on one leg for 15 seconds, it’s a good early warning that something’s awry. Work on it by including unilateral movements in your training – everything from lunges to single-leg mini squats will work – or doing more balance-focused training, like dance or tai chi.
4. Get up, get down
In a study published in the European Journal of Cardiology, participants who needed knees or elbows to help them move from standing to sitting on the floor – or back again – were more at risk from all-cause mortality than effortless risers, probably because the test predicted other imbalances. To work on your balance, sit on the floor more often and do some hip-mobility stretches like kneeling lunges.
5. Do what you like
Remember that exercise is something you do for decades, not an eight-week blast. So to make sure you get the best results, experiment with as many forms of exercise as it takes to find something you’ll stick with.