In 1966 five healthy men went to bed for three weeks. They weren’t tired; they were participating in what would become known as the Dallas Bed rest and training study, a landmark study on the effects of exercise (and the lack thereof) on our bodies.
After three weeks of complete inactivity – the men even used wheelchairs to get to the bathroom – their muscle function deteriorated to the point where they could barely stand. As researchers later noted, the three weeks of bed rest had a greater effect on their aerobic fitness than 30 years of aging.
After the bed rest part of the study, the men completed eight weeks of intensive exercise training that included treadmill workouts and long-distance running. The results? They completely reversed the damage from the bed rest, proving conclusively the amazing power of physical activity.
30 years later researchers contacted the original five men, now age 50, to participate in a follow-up study. All had become sedentary, gaining an average of 50 pounds and doubling their overall body fat. They had also lost significant cardiovascular fitness. Not all that loss was related to the natural effects of aging; about 40 percent was due to inactivity.
After walking, jogging, or cycling five hours a week for six months, the men again completely reversed their age-related drop in cardiovascular fitness. Their resting heart rates, blood pressure levels, and hearts’ maximum pumping ability, or aerobic power, returned to the levels of 30 years earlier!
The message? It’s never too late to begin exercising.
Your physical strength, heart health, and breathing ability aren’t bottoming out because you’re getting older. If they’ve declined, it’s most likely because you’ve been sitting around instead of working your muscles regularly.
The amount of muscle you have affects nearly every function in your body. Maintaining good muscle tone, and you’ll probably gain less weight, have a lower percentage of body fat, and prevent insulin resistance. Your LDL cholesterol and blood sugar levels will be lower, and your HDL cholesterol levels will be higher. You’ll also avoid constipation, keep your blood thin and moving smoothly through veins and arteries, improve your sleep, and reduce your risk for depression and memory lapses.
It doesn’t take much to reap these benefits. Just a few weeks of regular, moderate to high intensity physical activity each day, and almost every health measure is likely to improve – no matter what your age. Sure, the benefits are greater if you’ve maintained an exercise program throughout your life. One study, for instance, found that people who took long swims three to five times a week delayed their natural physical decline by decades. In other words, while the swimmers might be years old, they had the medical measurements of 40 year-olds.
Particularly bad in the United States is that working adults spend little to one of their time exerting their bodies. Many don’t even get 10 minutes a week of vigorous leisure-time physical activity like brisk walking, bike riding, or swimming.
Don’t let yourself fall into this category. Push yourself off of the couch watching Netflix and vow that today begins the rest of your life, the day on which you will pull on a comfortable pair of shorts and a T-shirt, a pair of white socks, and a good pair of walking shoes and hit the sidewalk!
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