Middle-Aged but Getting Younger


Yes, You Can Turn Back the Clock

To resist the frigidity of old age, one must combine the body, the mind, and the heart.  And to keep these in parallel vigour one must exercise, study, and love.

- Alan Bleasdale

Most people think that ageing is irreversible and we know that there are mechanisms even in the human machinery that allow for the reversal of ageing,
through correction of diet, through anti-oxidants, through removal of toxins from the body, through exercise, through yoga and breathing techniques, and through meditation.

- Lydia M Child

by Ron Winslow

A new study shows that exercise, even moderate, can reverse the effects of ageing by decades.  For all those who have slipped into the paunch and inactivity of middle age, there is hope yet.  The results of a 30-year study offer the prospect that starting a moderate but consistent exercise program later in life - even after years of falling out of shape - can restore aerobic capacity to levels one had as a young adult.  At the same time, the research shows startling consequences to inactivity at any age.

"It's relatively easy to achieve measurable improvements in a short period of time," says Darren McGuire, a cardiologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center who headed the second installment of the two-part study.  "It's never too late to exercise."

The ageing of the baby boom generation and the surging of obesity and diabetes to epidemic levels are focusing growing attention on the healing powers of physical fitness.  But few studies have shown the restorative effects of exercise as dramatically as a 30-year study of five men.  Their experience shows that almost anyone can get a second chance at youthful fitness.

The study began in 1966, when five healthy, 20-year-old college students loaned their bodies to science by staying in bed for 20 straight days, followed by intense exercise.  So dedicated were they to inactivity that they used a wheelchair to get to the bathroom.  The results (one of the men could barely drive his car at the end) helped change the thinking about aerobic activity.

Three decades later, the same five men, now in their early 50s and bigger around the waist, signed on for a follow-up to examine the effects of ageing on the cardiovascular system.  Researchers were astonished by what they found: the three weeks of bedrest back at age 20 was more damaging to the men's aerobic capacity than 30 years of ageing.

Indeed, after a six-month, moderately intense exercise program, the 50-year-olds restored their aerobic power to levels similar to when they first entered the bed-rest study as young adults.  Even an attorney whose weight had ballooned to 360 pounds, from 205 at age 20, was able to match his aerobic capacity of 30 years earlier.

"The whole thing showed that a 50-year-old is still pretty trainable," says Gregg Hill, a former science and computer teacher who was one of the participants in the study and is now preparing to become a personal trainer.

Researchers caution against making sweeping conclusions on a study involving just five male subjects who weren't compared with a control group.  But the participants underwent an especially comprehensive battery of tests, making them among the most intensely evaluated patients ever for an exercise study.  To assess cardiovascular fitness, researchers used a measure called VO2 max, an indicator of the body's ability to use oxygen at maximum exertion.  "Oxygen is the key molecule in life that allows us to make energy in our bodies to do physical work - to get out of a chair, mow a lawn, climb a flight of stairs or run a mile," says Benjamin Levine of Presbyterian Hospital and University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas, and a researcher on the study.

After their 20 days of bed rest were up back in 1966, the young men were taken from bed directly to the treadmill again and run to exhaustion, supported by special straps suspended from the ceiling of the exercise lab.  I passed out," recalls Kaz Laszlo, now a planning and operations manager at Vought Aircraft Industries Incorporated, Dallas, and one of the original subjects in the study.

Sore and Quivering

Mr Hill, who typically ran 75 miles a week before he enrolled in the study, didn't faint, but he says he was sore for two weeks after the treadmill run.  For the first day he couldn't drive a car because his leg quivered uncontrollably when he stepped on the accelerator.  It took eight weeks of rigorous exercise training following the bed-rest period for him to fully recover.

Overall, VO2 max plummeted more than 25% among the five young men, reflecting a loss of aerobic capacity so stunning that its publication as a 78-page supplement to the journal circulation in 1968 helped spark a major change in medical care.  As a result, doctors no longer prescribe bed rest for heart patients, but get them exercising as soon as the same day as bypass surgery or a heart attack.

When the men reunited for their 30-year follow-up, all five had gained at least 20 pounds each, and a couple much more.  While some had been active sporadically in the intervening years, none had maintained a consistent exercise program.  Yet, their initial VO2 max levels exceeded the readings taken after the prolonged bed rest 30 years earlier in four of the five men; it was the same in the fifth.

Hitting the Gym

Then the men began a carefully controlled, six-month aerobic exercise program.  Some jogged, some ran, some used a treadmill or stationary bicycle.  They started slowly, with two 20-minute sessions the first week, and gradually worked up to four to six sessions a week for a total of about five hours of physical activity.

The amount of exercise was regulated with the aid of a heart-rate monitor, a device worn like a wristwatch that recorded and stored the men's heart rates as they exercised.  With the monitors, "we could tell precisely the frequency, intensity and duration of exercise," Dr McGuire says.  The heart-rate monitors enabled the men to exercise at their own convenience, making it easier to stay on their programs.

They all reached their target performance: VO2 max readings equivalent to those when they first entered the study at age 20.  That doesn't mean the men can run a quarter mile as fast as they could in their youth, but it does suggest their endurance is essentially as good as it was then.

The results of the study were published in Circulation, the American Heart Association's journal, last 18 September, just a week after the 11 September terrorist attacks.  Consequently, they got little notice.

The five men, now in their mid-50s, remain active.  After weighing less than 150 pounds as a graduate student, Mr Hill was at 210 when the follow-up study began.  "I'd been promising myself I'd lose Some weight but never got around to it," he says.  Since then, he has given up junk food, resumed running regularly and lost 40 pounds.  "It was nice to get back," he says.

Lee Luebbehusen, a criminal defense lawyer in Fort Worth, Texas, who weighed 360 at the start of the follow-up study, described his slide into obesity and inactivity.  He says he did a lot of weight lifting in his 30s, though not much aerobic exercise.  Then after enrolling in law school in his late 30s, studying and sitting at a computer terminal "seemed to take all my former exercise time. I became pretty sedentary."  That's when he really began to put on weight.

Getting involved in the follow-up study "was probably a life-saver for me," says Mr Luebbehusen, who has been working out on a stationary bike.  Previously, his weight hadn't caused any apparent health problems, but lately, his blood pressure has been high.  "I need to get that under control.  I'm taking this seriously now."

Source: The Wall Street Journal Wednesday 8 May 2002; photo credit Dave Gersham

Leave all the afternoon for exercise and recreation, which are as necessary as reading =
I will rather say more necessary because health is worth more than learning.

- Thomas Jefferson

The whole idea of motivation is a trap. Forget motivation. Just do it.
Exercise, lose weight, test your blood sugar, or whatever. Do it without motivation.
And then, guess what? After you start doing the thing, that's when the motivation comes
and makes it easy for you to keep on doing it.

- John Maxwell

Why not do some crunches, go for a bike ride or a jog, jump rope or go for a swim RIGHT NOW?  There's never a better time than NOW to exercise.  Drink green tea, avoid saturated/hydrogenated fats and refined sugars, get plenty of sleep, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, don't smoke and spend time with family and friends and you, too, could one day get a letter from the Queen (or King?) saying "Happy 100th Birthday" - that is, if you WANT to...

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