Cyclist Study Finds Exercise Makes Your Body Age More Slowly

Commuters cycle in central London January 5, 2015. Eddie Keogh/Reuters

The bodies of people who do more exercise effectively age more slowly, a study of older cyclists by King's College London and the University of Birmingham has found. The study, published in the Journal of Physiology, discovered that a sample of middle-to-old age bikers aged 'optimally', appearing physiologically younger than the general population of more sedentary Britons.

Researchers examined the effects of ageing on 84 male and 41 female bikers aged 55 to 79 who were able to cycle 100 km in fewer than 6.5 hours and 60 km in 5.5 hours respectively. The study excluded those who led a sedentary lifestyle, smoked, drank heavily, or had health conditions - factors that are known to cause physiological problems that could confuse results.

Participants underwent a series of tests over the course of two days to determine their aerobic fitness, lung function, and muscle strength, using cycling as a measure of fitness for its low impact, use of large muscle groups, and the challenge it poses to the heart and cardiovascular systems.

What researchers found was that a volunteer's age was not directly correlated to their physical fitness, meaning that getting older doesn't automatically equate to getting weaker - as long as you maintain a physically active lifestyle. Essentially, doing regular exercise could mean that by the time you're 70, you could literally have the body of a 40-year-old.

Professor Stephen Harridge, senior author and Director of the Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences at King's College London where the study was conducted said that the highly active older volunteers were not only very healthy but had superior physiology when compared to a sedentary older person, who actually seem older physiologically.

In one test, participants were asked to stand up from a chair, walk three meters, turn, walk back and sit down. Although it seems simple, the test is viewed as an important indicator of the function of elderly people. People who are unable to complete this task in less than 15 seconds are viewed as being at risk of falls. However, researchers found that even participants that were physically active in their late 70s were able to do this test at the same level as a healthy young adult.

It isn't too late to reverse the effects of ageing, however. "If a physically inactive person becomes active, they will improve," Harridge said. "Formerly sedentary people are very responsive when they start up physical activity programs. Anything helps," he added.

Harridge hopes to measure the same people in five or ten years time in order to fully understand the effects of age on individuals of different activity levels.