There’s enough publicity in the media about the benefits of exercise and leading a healthy lifestyle that very few people can have escaped the mountain of evidence, anecdotal and scientific, to indicate that a more active lifestyle leads to a healthier, stronger and happier human. This latest post aims to give more scientific credence to this general notion by looking at some recent studies that give objective data on some of the effects that certain types of exercise have on our bodies. Whilst some of the data presented here isn’t necessarily new or ground-breaking, it does give more weight to the legions of print dedicated to showing that exercising has enormous benefits for every demographic and that by training smartly one can lead a healthier and happier life and even arrest some of the changes associated with growing older.
Children and Exercise
The first area that has gained more media coverage than most in recent years is the realm of children and exercise and how as a society we should improve the next generation’s health. Parents are being bombarded with exhortations to raise their children to be aware of the dangers of processed food and a couch-style existence that can lead to obesity and years of health problems. Whilst the aim here is not to publish a guide on how to bring up the nation’s children it does seek to provide up-to-date scientific data and let well-informed parents make the parenting decisions based on this research.
Researchers at the Georgia Health Sciences University have shown that the cells in bone, fat and the pancreas all communicate during and after exercise. They analysed a group of obese school children and found that after 12 weeks of intensive training there was significant increases in bone strength, a reduction in insulin sensitivity ( reducing risk of diabetes) and less of the dangerous visceral fat ( the fat that surrounds internal organs and takes up space in the cavity between the abdomen wall and internal organs and which is potentially more deadly that than the fat that is on the outside). Whist this isn’t particularly surprising to anyone in the fitness or personal training world, what is interesting is that scientists found that they could determine how well or badly a child was developing in the aforementioned areas by measuring the hormone osteocalcin in the blood which is made by bone-producing osteoblasts.
This hormone according to bone biologist Dr Pollack may have an effect on the other areas. He states that “when osteocalcin is released in your blood, that hormone is talking back to the adipocytes, the cells that store fat, and the pancreatic cells that release insulin to improve energy metabolism”. This suggests that due to the fact that fat and bone cells have a common ancestry coming from stem cells, a child’s early development and likelihood of becoming obese may be linked to their early lifestyle and habits. Exercise for children it would appear should be an important part of any child’s development.
The implications from this study alone would seem to lend weight (no pun intended) to the benefits of an exercise programme for children centred around strength exercise. Loading the skeletal system with weights has never seemed so crucial now there is more firm evidence to support the well-known fact that strengthening bones will also decrease the risk of metabolic disorders.
Another mainstay of recent fitness literature is the theory on the benefits of interval training and most London personal training companies and fitness professionals will lecture and repeat endlessly to their personal training clients that long slow duration cardio workouts just don’t provide the return on investment and that short bouts of intensive training moderated with periods of less intensive exercise training are the best way to proceed. However, as one gets older the prospect of running, cycling or training at or near maximum is grueling to say the least. After all, training at or near maximum levels isn’t for the faint hearted. However, for those that are willing to take up the challenge and for whom age is but a number there is more good news, particularly if you though that your best days were behind you.
Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology K.G. Jebsen Centre of Exercise Medicine have provided statistical evidence that 50-year olds can be as fit as someone 30 years younger. The key to achieving this is the degree of intensity of exercise. The study showed that by increasing the intensity of exercise the risk of metabolic syndrome is reduced, the troublesome series of risks that can predispose people to type 2 diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular problems.
Women whose fitness values were below the median Vo2peak (<35.1 mL kg-1 min-1) were five times more likely to have a range of risk factors in comparison to those in the highest quartile of Vo2peak (40.8 mL kg-1 min-1). For men below the median (<44.2 mL kg-1 min-1), the risk was even higher – they were eight times more likely to have a cluster of cardiovascular risk factors compared to those in the highest quartile of Vo2peak (50.5mL kg-1 min-1). The take away message from this study is that to maintain the benefits and reduce the risk of disease physical activity has to be maintained even if activity levels were high during younger years.
Preserving Muscle Mass
It has often been assumed that the onset of old age was the main reason for a reduction in overall muscle mass and strength and an increase in fatty tissue. Whilst this is partially true, new science is beginning to challenge this assumption. It would seem that being active and in particular choosing activities that load the muscles can arrest the decline. Research at the University of Pittsburg has looked into the effects of vigorous exercise programmes of several age groups; 40 to 49 year olds, 50 to 59 year olds, 60 to 69 year olds and 70 plus and the effect on body composition ( i.e. fat to muscle ratio) and leg strength. Although, most of the participants in the study were very active, some athletes, it clearly demonstrated that there was little evidence of muscle deterioration in the older athletes’ musculature. The athletes in their 70’s and 80’s had almost as much thigh muscle mass as the athletes in their 40’s, with minor if any fat infiltration. There was a drop-off in leg muscle strength around the age 60 in both men and women. They weren’t as strong as the 50- year olds, but the differential was not huge and little additional decline followed. The 70- and 80-year-old athletes were about as strong as those in their 60’s.
Dr Vonda Wright who oversaw the study saw this as welcome news to the older exercising population. “…people don’t have to lose muscle mass and function as they grow older. The changes that we’ve assumed were due to ageing and therefore unstoppable seem actually to be caused by inactivity. And that can be changed”.
As the above studies show there is a direct cause and effect between exercise – in all its many forms- and the condition of our physical health and wellbeing. They show that as a species we are designed to move and exert our bodies so the complex series of chemical processes that preserves our tissues and gives us the capacity to master our environment as well as stave off disease is achieved. The message oft-repeated, is that exercise increases the likelihood of leading a longer and healthier life allowing us to enjoy what we did in our early years right through to our senior years. The promotion of physical exercise programmes and the scientific research that underpins them seems set to continue and undoubtedly will lead to more advances in exercise training methodologies that will be adopted by all personal trainers in London.