Best Simple Exercises for Living a Long Life, According to Experts

One of the most important factors for living a long life and maintaining health into old age is exercise. But what are some of the best forms of exercise when it comes to boosting longevity, according to science?

Exercise—in the form of a cardio workout and muscle-strengthening activities—can boost longevity through a number of pathways that will lower a person's risk for chronic disease, according to Matthew Ahmadi, a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Health Sciences at The University of Sydney, Australia.

"For example, exercise can improve blood pressure, blood circulation, plaque regression, and improve overall fitness," Ahmadi told Newsweek. "Collectively, these will lower a person's risk of cardiovascular disease."

Exercise has also been shown to lower inflammation in the body, which will in turn lower the risk for certain cancers and other conditions.

"Activity is one of the best things you can do for your heart, your blood vessels, your musculoskeletal system, your metabolic system, your immune system, and especially your spinal cord and brain," Dr. Michael Roizen, an expert in longevity who is chief wellness officer emeritus at the Cleveland Clinic and founder of the Reboot Your Age program, told Newsweek.

"Studies show that being sedentary is associated with a higher risk of several problems, including cardiovascular disease."

According to Roizen, who is also the author of The Great Age Reboot: Cracking the Longevity Code for a Younger Tomorrow, there are four primary components of physical activity that have been associated with longevity without disability. These include:

  1. Walking 10,000 steps every day, or the step equivalents—approximately one minute of activity equals 100 steps. "This can include riding a bike or elliptical machine, swimming, carrying groceries, gardening, playing ping pong, and playing with the grandkids—they all count," Roizen said. One study in the British journal Sports Medicine found that you can reduce your risk of all-cause mortality by 24 percent if you increase your walking pace to a brisk one—reaching a speed of just over 4 miles per hour.
  2. Doing some form of resistance training two or three days a week, ensuring that you strengthen your core to avoid back pain in the future.
  3. Doing three roughly 20-minute-long sessions of cardio at 85 percent of age adjusted maximum with perhaps around 2 minutes of high intensity interval training, according to Roizen. These three sessions are the minimum amount of cardio you can do for maximum benefit.
  4. Doing 40 jumps on a hard surface daily. "This is an important activity for increasing lymphatic flow as well as for increasing bone density and spinal disk health," Roizen said. "Just as weightlifting increases muscle strength by inflicting small injuries in your muscles so they become stronger, jumping inflicts small injuries to your bone and disks—and what doesn't break, makes you stronger!"

"Think of 10,000 steps or step equivalents a day as a solid baseline to commit to," Roizen said. "Be sure to add resistance exercises, cardio and jumping so you cover all of your bases for the minimum effect for the maximum longevity effect."

According to Ahmadi, the best form of exercise for boosting longevity is whatever a person finds enjoyable and will likely stick to over long periods of time.

"People often equate exercise with going to the gym or playing sport. But the health benefits attained from these 'traditional' forms of exercise can be attained from any activity a person does that is done at a little higher intensity or pace than normal," he said.

A group of people running
A file photo of people running. Regular exercise is a core component of living a long life. iStock

In a study conducted by Ahmadi and his colleagues, researchers found up to two-minute bouts of vigorous intense activity done at least two times a day lowered the risk of heart disease by 35 percent.

"In our study, we found that much lower durations of vigorous physical activity were needed to lower morbidity and mortality risks," he said. "Therefore, any physical activity a person is doing provides an opportunity to do vigorous physical activity, if they can do the activity at a faster pace or higher intensity for just short periods of time. This may be particularly important for people who do not have the time or do not wish to go to a gym or engage in 'traditional' exercise."

"For those people who are already doing exercise, that is great and they should keep doing it. But for people who can not make it to a gym, they can also attain the health-benefits of vigorous physical activity by doing their daily activities at a faster pace even if it is just for short periods of time."

For example, this may include gardening or doing household chores at a little higher intensity for short periods, or fast walking interspersed with comfortable walking pace when walking during the day. Over a given week, this will allow people to accumulate the "sweet-spot" of 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week, or a minimum of 15-20 minutes per week, according to Ahmadi.

"The key take-home message is that there is no single 'best' exercise a person should do," he said. "Any activity they find enjoyable is an opportunity to health benefits and longevity if they do it at a little faster pace or higher intensity, in short bouts of up to 2-minutes spread throughout the day, than they normally would do the activity."

"By doing this, they will affect the total activity intensity volume, which is a combination of frequency and duration," he said. "This is when we begin to see many of the health benefits that come from physical activity as improvements in blood pressure, blood circulation, fitness, and body inflammation will occur that will lead to lowering a person's risk of heart disease and cancer."

Ahmadi said it is important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to physical activity and the potential health-enhancing benefits that can be achieved.

"Because everyone will have a different fitness level, what constitutes 'high intensity' will vary from person to person," he said. "The balance of physical activity intensities needs to be determined relative to a person's fitness and functional capacity. As long as a person is 'challenging' themselves when doing activities they find enjoyable, such as walking at a little faster pace in short bursts, then they will be able to improve their overall health and longevity."

In addition to aerobic exercise, muscle-strengthening activities, which include resistance training and weightlifting, are also an important component of longevity. These activities cause the body's muscles to work or hold against an applied force or weight and often involve lifting relatively heavy objects, such as weights, multiple times to strengthen different muscle groups.

A woman lifting weights
A file photo of a woman lifting a weight. Muscle-strengthening training is important aspect of overall fitness. iStock

Muscle-strengthening activity can also be done by using elastic bands or body weight for resistance—climbing a tree or doing push-ups, for example.

"We know that muscle strengthening exercise is associated with a wide range of health benefits, which include increased strength and better physical function, Jessica Gorzelitz, an assistant professor in the Department of Health & Human Physiology at The University of Iowa, told Newsweek.

"We are still learning about the metabolic effects of weightlifting on bodily systems that may affect mortality risk, but we do know that this type of exercise can have a beneficial effect on body composition and other metabolic risk factors, such as blood pressure, inflammation markers and even blood cholesterol."

In a study that Gorzelitz and colleagues conducted, the researchers found that older adults who participated in weightlifting exercises had significantly lower mortality before and after accounting for aerobic exercise participation, and importantly, those who did both types of exercise had the lowest risk.

"This finding provides strong support for the current Physical Activity Guidelines for U.S. adults, which recommends doing both aerobic and muscle strengthening activity," Gorzelitz said.

"People may be unfamiliar with weightlifting and not know how to get started," she said. "Our results suggest that some is better than none, and it's okay to get started slowly and progress as strength and confidence increases. It is important to work all the major muscle groups of the body—the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms."

With regards to physical activity in general, research has also shown that people who were inactive and improved their levels had a similar lower risk of morbidity and mortality as people who consistently had adequate activity levels.

"This is important, as it suggests it is never too late for a person to attain the health benefits that come from physical activity," Ahmadi said.

Aside from physical activity, there are several other lifestyle factors that play an important role in longevity and long-term health.

"To maximise overall health improvements, people should also try to have a healthy diet, sleep habits—both in consistency of bed time and wake up time, and nightly sleep duration—and avoiding smoking or drinking excessively," Ahmadi said.