Where is the Sweet Spot of Exercise for Longevity and Healthy Ageing?
I’ve always been unsure of the type of people that offer exercise advice online.
You’ve seen them, chiselled, toned and lean. Wearing gear to emphasise their body, not covering it with loose fitting tops like the rest of us. Suggesting workout routines that take hours to complete, even if they are physically possible after middle age.
Don’t get me wrong, I admire their dedication and work ethic. I’m a glass half-full type of person and want everyone to succeed in their own way.
It’s just that these types are not relatable.
They are not like you and me, ordinary people trying to stay fit and healthy while balancing life’s demands. I don’t feel that 99% of the people giving fitness advice out there can comprehend that not everyone can (or want to) live in the gym.
This page takes the topic of minimum viable exercise for longevity from a decidedly middle-aged perspective. Government guidelines, the science and how to avoid that frail old age without becoming the latest Instagram fitness influencer are all covered below.
Exercising for Longevity: Why Minimum Viable Exercise is a Must
The American Heart Association produced an eye-opening paper recently.
They showed that sticking to the 150 minutes per week exercise recommendation from the CDC gives a 21% reduction in all-cause mortality. What surprised me is that going over and above this boosted it to 31%.
A pinch of salt is needed with these numbers.
We must account for zero minutes of exercise for people with end-of-life illnesses, that have damaging BMI levels or other chronic conditions.
That said, 21% to 31% is a huge jump.
Curing all cancer tomorrow only increases the average lifespan of the whole population by 3 years.
Within the 150 minutes recommended by the NHS, WHO and CDC are different types of exercise. I’ll get into those below. First, let’s summarise the different ways in which exercise and longevity / healthy ageing are linked.
Exercise and Longevity: Summary of the Benefits
I like to think of exercise as one of three pillars of a longer, healthier life.
The others are sleep, nutrition and avoiding (at least minimising) toxins.
Here are the ways minimum viable exercise will boost your healthspan:
- Frailty Kills: Sarcopenia in later years, and the risk / damage from falls is a major killer. It also drastically reduces quality of life.
- The Hallmarks of Ageing: Exercise boosts anti-ageing cellular processes including mitochondrial health (via autophagy), senescent cell clearance, and telomere length.
- Body Fat Reduction: Exercise contributes to maintaining a healthy BMI, alongside your diet choices. Insulin resistance, heart disease and stroke are significant life-shortening conditions caused by excess fat deposits.
- Osteoporosis: Exercise reduces loss of bone mass in older people. When combined with a reduction in falls (via better balance, muscle tone), fractures are significantly reduced too.
- Benefits to the Cardiovascular System: You get lower heart disease incidence, along with lower stroke and cognitive decline by regularly working out.
- Secondary Benefits: Better sleep (circadian rhythm), healthier gut microbiome, immune system boost, and improvements in mood / mental wellbeing.
The benefits work together. I think of this as a system-wide improvement. While any one of these factors are worthwhile alone, when you combine them, your body works exactly as designed.
It needs stating clearly: People not doing their minimum weekly exercise allocation are on the road to all of the conditions above – just at different rates.
A Little Exercise Goes a Long Way for Longevity: The Types of Exercise Have Different Benefits
You need to combine three different types of exercise to enjoy healthy ageing.
- Light Cardio
- High Intensity Cardio
- Resistance Training
Each has different benefits. Light cardio includes taking a brisk walk, cycling, mowing the lawn, or playing doubles tennis. This is your bedrock exercise that keeps you moving regularly. It improves cardiovascular health and makes sure that different muscle groups are active.
High intensity cardio is best in short bursts. This can range from HIIT (high intensity interval training) to sports, an intensive swim, or running. By elevating your heart and breathing rate, you trigger multiple beneficial cellular processes – as well as burning fat.
Resistance Training: Many older people leave this key type of exercise out. Yet studies repeatedly show that muscle strengthening workouts reduce all-cause mortality significantly. You don’t need to lift heavy weights in a gym. Resistance bands, body weight exercises and lifting lighter dumbbells will add resistance training to your routine.
Government Guidelines (and How to Improve on them)
Here are the guidelines for the minimum amount of exercise from the WHO (World Health Organisation), NHS and CDC (Centre for Disease Control, USA).
You’ll notice they are similar, demonstrating a medical consensus on the types and duration of workouts needed for a long and healthy life. I’d be shocked if more than 20% of the population got anywhere close to the amount of exercise needed.
I’ll list the adult recommendations and note the caveats for older people here. There are specifics for children, pregnancy (and post-partum) guidelines and guidance to speak with your doctor via the links for each organisation.
Summary of WHO Weekly Exercise Recommendations for Adults 18-64:
- 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity weekly.
- 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity (or in combination with above).
- 2 days per week of muscle strengthening exercise, cover all major muscle groups.
- Limit the amount of time spent sedentary.
The World Health Organisation note that these guidelines apply to adults over 65. In addition, functional balance and strength training should be upped to 3 days per week.
Summary of NHS Weekly Exercise Recommendation for Adults aged 19-64:
In the eyes of the NHS, at 18 you are still a kiddo. For those of us over 19, here are the minimums for longevity and healthy ageing:
- Minimum 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity.
- Workouts should be spread over 4 or 5 days per week, or every day.
- Do strengthening activities that work on all major muscle groups at least 2 days a week.
- Reduce time spent sitting or lying down.
Adults over 65 are encouraged to be physically active every day and to do exercises which improve strength, balance, and flexibility at least two days per week.
The NHS go into more depth on the types of activity which fall into the moderate and vigorous categories than the other organisations. You’ll find the details on this page.
Summary of the CDC Weekly Exercise Recommendations for Adults:
The Centre for Disease Control, which looks after preventative health (among other things) in the USA make it clear that aerobic activity and strength training are needed in combination using graphics on their guidelines.
They give three options:
- 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity, plus 2+ days muscle-strengthening activity.
- 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity, plus 2+ days of muscle strengthening activity.
- Or a combination of the above (again including the 2+ muscle days).
The CDC states that going above these recommendations will bring even more benefits. They also provide tips for getting started, plus details on which exercises fit into each category.
Not a Gym Bunny? Ideas for Extra Exercise for Regular People
As someone that does not enjoy commercial gyms, I have worked hard on developing exercise routines to go with my other longevity habits.
If there is one piece of advice that comes up over and over here, it is to find something you enjoy as your exercise bedrock. Willpower and enthusiasm will get you started. Maintaining a routine in the months and years ahead based on willpower alone is doomed to fail.
Making exercise social, combining your time working out with learning (for example via an entertaining podcast), or adding small exercise bursts throughout your day all work wonders.
My (Middle-Aged) Routine:
My routine includes ‘snacks’, which fits with both my busy schedule and my aversion to group classes:
- Daily Pre-Shower: 30 push-ups and a 1-minute plank (my ‘exercise breakfast’.)
- Daily Movement: 2x short, brisk walks. The morning walk is key, as sunlight exposure also helps with sleep. Also daily stair climbing, living in a three-story townhouse helps!
- 3 to 4 Times / Week: After work (pre-dinner) session. Body weight, HIIT and resistance training combination. From 15 minutes (on a bad day) to 30 minutes. I’m still working on perfecting this one.
- 2 to 3 Times / Week: Treadmill workout, usually 5km to 8km, combining steady runs with short sprints, sometimes with incline. I alternate this with the floor workout above.
Your routine might look completely different.
As with all longevity habits, timing is key. Anchor your exercise to a specific time of day, and you will never need to think about how to fit it in. Start small, for example, 10 push-ups when you get home from work (or when you get up in the morning). You can build from there.
I’ll expand on establishing your exercise habits in my upcoming longevity habits eBook guide.
Longevity Drugs and Supplements: How They Affect the Benefits of Exercise
Metformin, a popular drug for the treatment of type 2 diabetes (among other things), dampens the effect of exercise on muscles.
It does this via inhibition of mitochondrial respiration.
There are solutions, including pulsing (taking Metformin on days you don’t do vigorous) strength training. My personal view is that if you are taking Metformin on the advice of your doctor, then the effects on exercise should never stop you taking it. If you are taking it simply for longevity, and actively muscle building, then you should follow up with the science, here is a paper to get you started.
Popular longevity drug Rapamycin is a selective mTOR inhibitor, which again links it to reducing the effect of resistance training on muscle growth. Dose size, frequency and your age / exercise goals are all important factors. This post at Rapamycin News is a great starting point for what to consider.
Wrapping Up: Minimum Viable Exercise for Longevity
When I think of friends and family at middle age and above, they fit into two clear camps:
- Either, sporty, doing regular exercise and enjoying the outdoors, or
- Sedentary, doing lip-service to the occasional walk.
Unfortunately, the majority fit into the second category.
When you combine that with lack of knowledge about healthy eating, the link between how you treat your body in middle age and those chronic diseases of ageing is shockingly clear.
The minimum viable exercise for longevity is a low bar.
150 minutes combining moderate and vigorous cardio, and something to strengthen those muscles twice per week will reap massive benefits. It will reduce the number of frail years during old age, creating a virtuous cycle where you can keep moving – boosting your healthy, active years still further.
Once you have a routine for the minimum viable exercise in place, you can add to it, getting even better protection against the killer diseases of old age.
Best of all, you’ll love how you feel with a fitter, more active body.
More Popular Pages: