While you know exercise is good for you — you’ve heard so a million times — newer research on its far-reaching benefits is something anyone in middle age or older truly needs to hear. The latest evidence is showing that exercise not only strengthens your heart and may trim your waist, but regular physical activity can actually slow the aging process on a cellular level and potentially add years to your life.
Consider this: While federal guidelines now recommend at least 2½ hours every week of moderate intensity exercise (or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous exercise), Harvard University researchers recently noted that as little as 15 minutes of physical activity a day can boost your life span by three years.
What’s more, a remarkable 2018 JAMA Network Open study found that not exercising increases your risk of premature death more than cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even smoking.
The latest research also gives us our first clues about why physical activity is so important — and it appears that it can actually make your cells biologically younger.
Brigham Young researchers looked at DNA samples of nearly 6,000 adults. They measured the lengths of study participants’ telomeres, the molecular caps at the end of chromosomes that tend to get shorter with age, and found that people with higher activity levels had longer telomeres than those who were sedentary. In fact, the exercisers had a “biological age” that was about nine years younger.
Another recent study found that men and women in their 70s who exercise regularly have the heart, lung and muscle fitness of healthy people 30 years younger. “We were shocked,” says Scott Trappe, the director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University and author of that study. “We assume that as you get older, you become frail and weak. But just looking at the muscle of older exercisers compared to younger ones, we couldn’t tell who was young and who was old.”
While Trappe’s study focused on men and women who have been exercising for decades, it’s never too late to start. Studies show that even people who start exercising in their 80s and 90s experience health and longevity benefits. A study just published in the International Journal of Stroke, for instance, showed that those who became fit later in life (ages 40 to 59) cut their risk of a potentially deadly stroke in half, while those who had been fit when younger and became unfit doubled their risk.
While any type of exercise appears to add to your longevity, here’s what the research shows about how to get the biggest longevity boost from your physical activity:
Find a partner (or a group)
A study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings indicated that playing a team sport may be better at extending your lifespan than exercising solo. Researchers tracked about 9,000 people for 25 years and found that playing tennis added an average of 9.7 years to life expectancy, followed by badminton (6.2 years) and soccer (4.7 years). “They are all activities that mandate social interaction in a playful way,” says study coauthor James O’Keefe, a cardiologist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute. “And play is nature’s remedy for stress.” The results also correlate to other research that shows social connections are strongly linked to longevity. Not to mention that if something feels like fun, you’re more likely to do it. If tennis isn’t your thing, O’Keefe says, consider pickleball, a fast-growing racquet sport that blends badminton, tennis and table tennis.