Does running reduce our risk of heart disease? Why should we exercise, and why is exercise good for you? Better yet, how can exercise slow aging? While at the University of California Irvine, I was able to be apart of the Exercise Medicine and Sport Science Initiative, where I was able to learn from incredible professors and gain insight into how exercise can be used to treat different illnesses and diseases. As we age and we are plagued with different ailments and diseases, prescription drugs are the accepted route for treatment. These drugs often treat the symptom of a larger issue and come with side effects themselves. The use of these drugs can, at the least, be modulated if we can inject exercise into our lives as we age. Exercise, through cognitive and physiological means, has a profound impact on our health and wellness and can slow the process of aging.
What Happens When We Age?
So, what even happens as we age? Why do we grow old at all? To understand this, it might be wise to start with some physics (not a lot, I promise). There is one term we are going to concern ourselves with and that is “entropy”. For those not familiar with the term entropy, it is simply the tendency of a system to move towards randomness or disorder. For example, when I was a kid I loved to make sandcastles at the beach. I would make them with moats so the water didn’t wash them away. I would construct towers with clamshells and rocks, and I would garnish them with wreaths of seaweed. In the end, I would sprinkle some dry sand and they would eventually come out looking as such (maybe not exactly, but close I promise). I would go home thinking I had created an indestructible masterpiece. Yet, when I would return the next day it would almost always be gone. The wind blew the sand and the water washed it away. The system I had created (the sandcastle) moved toward entropy, or back to its disordered state. Our bodies abide by this very same rule. Our cells slowly move from ordered to disordered. Processes that once were tightly regulated become faulty which opens us up to disease and illness.
The Reversal of Alzheimer’s
Our brains are dynamic pieces of machinery that can complete many tasks. Because our brains are central to just about all of our bodily processes, it is tightly regulated. But..when its environment is disrupted, this can lead to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and Huntington’s Disease. This is in part from the death of brain cells that occurs when the mitochondria (energy center) in our brain cannot rid itself of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) (1). These ROS begin interacting with our brain cells in pathophysiological ways (disease and physiological ways) and cause them to die (2). But there is hope! When we exercise, two beneficial processes occur:
- We train our bodies to be able to deal with these ROS and prevent them from reacting with our brain cells. This is primarily accomplished via the activity of our mitochondria. When the mitochondria in our cells become efficient at eliminating these ROS, the environment that our brain cells live in becomes more stable.
- We release a certain neurotrophin called Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF). This neurotrophin along with a few others helps prune brain cell connections, making them more efficient. As well as providing nutrients to foster the growth of new brain cells (3).
These two benefits together have helped the fight against neurodegenerative diseases (diseases that cause degeneration of nerve cells) and can be gained by exercising more! But this is not the only process that moves us towards entropy as we age.
Sarcopenia is the loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength with age (4). Along with this decline in total muscle mass, a decrease in the quality of the remaining muscle is observed as well (5). This is mainly seen through the infiltration of fat within the muscle (5). Both of these factors open us up to a host of issues and put us at a higher risk as we age. Daily tasks become difficult to accomplish and our dependence on others increases. Progressive strength training programs can help older populations retain the muscle mass they already have and improve its quality, making them more resilient to falls, bumps, and trips. But strength training doesn’t only slow aging by way of increasing muscle mass, it also can improve our sensitivity to insulin, reducing our risk of different metabolic diseases!
Diseases such as diabetes and obesity stem from our body’s metabolic processes being impaired. Primarily, its ability to process and utilize different nutrients effectively and efficiently. As we age, it becomes increasingly important to be able to shuttle these nutrients into the cell to gain energy from them. When we eat a meal containing carbohydrates, our body breaks down those carbohydrates into sugars that enter our bloodstream. Once their insulin is released, this tells our cells to let that sugar inside to be processed by our mitochondria to create energy. Resistance training helps our body regulate our blood sugar by way of increasing its demand in our muscles. This keeps our bodies functioning well into our later years.
Exercise IS Medicine
Exercise is the medicine we all need to combat aging. When we stop moving we start dying and processes that were once controlled lose their regulation. Exercise provides nutrients to our brain to keep neurons healthy and firing. It also helps us maintain muscle mass which provides us a physical resilience to the falls, bumps, and bruises that come along with life. Until a pill comes along that stimulates all the same physiological pathways as exercise, nothing will beat it. To get started and reap all the benefits physical activity has to offer, start simply and fall in love with doing something active each and every day because being able to sustain movement for the rest of our lives is what we are ultimately looking for.
Sports Performance Coach
“Coach Jon, Irvine Strength and Conditioning Coach who is an athlete himself is someone I recommend to my patients. He knows what he is doing and his attention is on the proper form and injury prevention is what I love about him.”- Dr. Shakib, your Irvine Chiropractor.
- Cao X. Fang Y. (2015) Transducing oxidative stress to death signals in neurons. The Journal of Cell Biology Nov 2015, 211 (4) 741-743; DOI: 10.1083/jcb.201510105
- Eman Y. Khairy & Maha M. Attia (2019) Protective effects of vitamin D on neurophysiologic alterations in brain aging: role of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), Nutritional Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1080/1028415X.2019.1665854
- Huang E. and Reichardt L. (2001) Neurotrophins: Roles in Neuronal Development and Function. Annual Review of Neuroscience 2001 24:1, 677-736
- Sayer Avan Aihie. Sarcopenia BMJ 2010; 341 :c4097
- Delmonico M, Harris T, Visser M, Park S, Conroy M, Velasquez-Mieyer P, Boudreau R, Manini T, Nevitt M, Newman A, and Goodpaster B. (2009) Health AgingBody Composition Study, Longitudinal study of muscle strength, quality, and adipose tissue infiltration, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 90, Issue 6, December 2009, Pages 1579–1585, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.28047