Life Extension Magazine®

Relationship between Exercise & Longevity

Exercise not only can extend life span, it can also renew your life.

Scientifically reviewed by: Dr. Gary Gonzalez, MD, in August 2023. Written by: Life Extension Editorial Staff.

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Let's discuss the relationship between exercise and longevity in a logical manner. I've always sensed that the healthier you are, the longer you should live. Comparatively speaking, if one is weak and out of shape, and prone to pain, illness and disease, I can't believe that person would live a long life. And if he did, he'd live a long, miserable life.

Unfortunately, I personally cannot prove my theory. However, if you do agree with me, or at least sense some truth behind my theory, the remainder of this article should enlighten your todays and tomorrows. Although I'm interjecting my own common logic here, you can rest assured that plenty of scientific research can back up most of it.

It is now known that conditioning yourself through fitness activities will make you healthier. And fitness means proper exercise, food, supplementation, relaxation and a positive, cheerful attitude. When you have developed a routine that comprises these elements, and have learned to integrate and balance them into your personal, social, family and occupational life, you will be able to better tolerate many of the stresses and ailments so many fall victim to.

In addition, several studies have proven that exercise will increase mean life span. How? Exercise contributes to the quality of one's life by improving both physiological and psychological functions. This improvement in one's life can eliminate the need for special care, and lead to a reduction or elimination of the consumption of toxic drugs and therapies that offer temporary results and negative consequences.

Also, in studies conducted in laboratory animals, it was found that sedentary rats lived shorter lives than their active counterparts. It can then be safely stated that life span and energy expenditure do have a correlation, although the expended energy must be at intensities that stimulate growth and repair of the body, rather than placing too much trauma on the tissues, organs and nervous system.

I believe many athletes might actually be shortening their life spans with the intensity at which they train. The loads they subject themselves to during training often overburden their bodies. Of course, intense training is a necessity in today's world of competitive sports, as training sessions are designed to improve on one's own personal ability to surpasses the competition. However, with the frequency of training sessions, recuperation time between workouts often is not adequate enough to repair the damage from previous workouts.

Thus, hard-core, consistent training can be damaging. The athlete who is constantly training beyond his or her metabolic capabilities is subject to a variety of ailments, including tissue damage, hormonal imbalances, immune system dysfunction and depression. Combined with the vast array of performance-enhancing drugs, such as anabolic steroids and amphetamines, some athletes are destroying their health while striving for gold medals. In addition, the athletes who live long, productive lives after retiring from their sports are those who have paced their training in direct parallel with their metabolic capabilities. They also are the ones who either have avoided drug use entirely, or wisely used (not abused) synthetic ergogenic substances.

In consulting athletes who are entering their post-career life, I prescribe a continuous routine of exercise comprised of light to moderate intensities. I also prescribe exercise activities with lots of variety. In this stage of an athlete's life, careful management of the needs of the body will restore and maintain health, while possibly increasing life span as well. I'd like to introduce you to more of the remarkable physiological changes you can expect by involving yourself in a sensible fitness regimen.

As I have noted previously, the body has two basic muscle fiber types, fast twitch muscle fibers and slow twitch muscle fibers. The fast twitch fibers are those that are responsible for strong and quick (explosive) actions like swinging a golf club, picking up your child, throwing a baseball, lifting a heavy load and so forth. The slow twitch fibers are used for walking and other slow, non-stressing activities.

As we age, fast twitch fibers atrophy, which prevents us from engaging in chores we once had the strength for. But if we maintain a respectable degree of muscle strength with exercise, even into our twilight years, much of the inevitable decline of fast twitch tissue can be prevented. Weight training enables people to feel years younger, and prevents a myriad of physical ailments that are normally associated with weak and frail muscles.

"Training for a marathon isn't necessary for longevity, especially if a 2-mile walk or run is your own best prescription for health."

Other studies indicate that exercise strengthens bones and slows the progress of osteoporosis, a bone-thinning ailment commonly associated with older women. Weight-bearing exercise, especially the exercise obtained from lifting weights and using resistance machines, places a healthy stress on the bones and encourages new bone growth.

Additionally, with a well-conditioned muscular system the posture of the body is kept in proper alignment. Since muscles hold the skeletal system in place, weak and out of shape muscles poorly align the body as the bones shift from natural, supportive positions. Anatomical misalignment can create various degenerative joint conditions, as bones and their connections compress together. When joints become crowded, their natural gaps and lubrication are reduced, and grinding wears them down even further. Weight training prevents and relieves these maladies.

There are other factors that I feel connect exercise with a longer life.

  • Exercise encourages a healthy lifestyle. It is well-recognized that those who begin a fitness program concomitantly reduce or even stop smoking, avoid junk foods, control consumption of alcohol, and begin thinking optimistically about themselves.
  • Exercise controls the progression of, and can even reverse, obesity. People who exercise burn additional calories, preventing the deposition of fat inside the body while reducing their percentages of stored body fat.
  • Contrary to popular belief, exercise does not have to be vigorous or difficult in order to be beneficial. As long as an extra demand is placed upon the body above what is normally experienced, the body will become conditioned, adapt to the new stress, and become stronger and healthier. With this strategy of progressive resistance, year-round progress is assured as the body is paced within its own metabolic capabilities and recovers nicely. Training for a marathon doesn't have to be your answer for health and longevity, especially if a 2-mile walk or run is your own best prescription for health.
  • Begin exercise after seeking professional assistance, perhaps from a personal trainer. Learning the correct ways to exercise cannot be over-emphasized. I encourage that you write down your goals, strengths and weaknesses, and present them to someone who can provide the answers.
Start at your own pace and progress when you feel capable. If you perform below your expectations on certain days, don't get alarmed. The body has its own biorhythm and will fluctuate in energy and strength, workout after workout. Just get out there and enjoy yourself. You don't have to measure up to anybody else or to your own previous best days.

  • Exercise sessions do not have to last several hours to be productive. If you exercise correctly, sessions that are well under one hour will be sufficient for all your needs. However, if you like taking long walks or bike rides, or feel like playing tennis one afternoon, go ahead and enjoy yourself. To prepare and better endure your workouts, bring along some water or maybe a good carbohydrate drink, as this will keep you hydrated and prevent any mineral imbalances.
  • You're never too old, so start now! I don't care how old you are. Exercise isn't only for the young and energetic-it's for everyone!
  • Remain "normal." Some think you have to make all new friends, live on an organic farm, and own your own gym. Not true. To give up your regular life would be a major deprivation. Sure, there are those things you will have to eliminate or curb a bit. But as long as you exercise and eat sensibly, you will obtain benefits that will contribute to your health and longevity.
  • To age successfully really relates to how well you have lived your life. I witness so many life-extension enthusiasts who become overwhelmed in the search to find that "new" drug or miracle hormone that will banish all the neglect of their previous years. I do believe there are some great products that contribute to health and well-being, but I feel a foundation of sensible exercise and good eating habits must be laid and maintained if you truly plan to live life to its fullest.
Many times, I have heard that great athletes and those who have lived long lives are those who chose the right parents. Granted, genetics do play a role in the course of our lives, but I also believe we can control our destinies. The ingredients for genetic self-intervention are proper exercise and nutrition. These practicesconstruct and remodel the tissues of the body, making it possible for us to literally "create" ourselves.

If we eat poorly and never develop any strength or stamina from exercise, common logic suggests that we'll most likely be unhappy, weak, stricken with maladies, and pass away years before our true time is up. On the other hand, my golden theory is, if we eat great foods, develop adequate strength to easily endure our days, train sensibly and avoid drugs, we'll live a productive and extended life.

John Abdo is an Olympic strength coach, certified fitness trainer, youth fitness trainer, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and co-executive producer and host of Training & Nutrition 2000, a weekly syndicated television series on the Prime SportsChannel Network.