Better an active old fart than a lazy youth

An active 50-year-old can be as fit as a couch potato 20-something, according to Ulrik Wisloff and his colleagues at the Norwegian University of Science’s Jebsen Center. Their study shows that by increasing the intensity of exercise, one can overcome metabolic syndrome, a set of risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease.

“Physical condition is the most important factor in describing an individual’s overall health, almost like a report card,”

…says Stian Thoresen Aspenes, whose PhD research forms the basis of the published work.

Aspenes’ doctoral thesis is based on data from nearly 5,000 healthy men and women included in Norway’s biggest health database, the Nord Trøndelag Helseundersøkelsen (HUNT), and looks at physical fitness across all age groups. As one might expect, those who are the least fit have the worst measures of cardiovascular health, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and the research shows that this has little to do with age.

Exercise is good for you, at whatever level, but when it comes to achieving and maintaining peak physical condition, it is aerobic exercise intensity rather than the duration of physical activity that matters most. Also, the research confirms that combining short periods of high-intensity exercise with lower intensity activity – so-called 4×4 interval training – is a quick and reliable way of increasing one’s overall fitness.

One should also maintain the effort over the long term. Being active and healthy when young means little if in older age you sit back and lead a sedentary life.

Of course, with high intensity aerobic exercise, there may be a greater chance of dropping dead from a heart attack, but better that than a slow decline beset with the usual aches and pains of unhealthy middle and old age.

Further reading

Aspenes et al., “Peak Oxygen Uptake and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in 4631 Healthy Women and Men”, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 43, 1465 (2011)