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Exercise and Aging: A Qualitative Correlation

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EXERCISE AND AGING: A Qualitative Correlation

In 1523 the Spanish explorer and conquistador Ponce de Leon went searching for the legendary Fountain of Youth. What he discovered was Florida; not quite the quick-fix of a magical substance flowing from a fountain but a nice place for frozen northeastern residents to go for recreation in the winter. The idea of mythical youth is still very much alive in our culture and most noticeable in the advertising that surrounds us. But beyond the youthful look presented us, we desire to actually be youthful & #8212; to act and feel youthful & #8212; to feel like eighteen again (or at least twenty-five). This is one of the ironies of life. Throughout childhood you can't wait to be an adult. Then, once you've been an adult for a while, you'd do anything to be young again. Physical exercise is one "anything" a person can do to not only feel young but to physiologically slow the aging process.

This paper will present studies indicating the affect exercise has on the human body and how it is useful in keeping us at our optimum physical and mental health. For now, aging is inevitable. Physiologically, we age because individual cells are preprogrammed to overwork and then self-destruct. The process becomes apparent in a comparison of old and young skin cells. Although both types contain the same array of genes, in older cells the genes work overtime under the direction of a master gene. The master gene forces the others to produce abnormal amounts of protein, which slows down replication and other vital cellular activity. These factors eventually cause organ degeneration and aging.

To prevent or delay aging a way must be found to control overactive genes, say Dr. Samuel Goldstein of the University of Arkansas and Anna McCormick, Ph.D. of the National Institute on Aging. The ultimate anti-aging discovery would be a drug that could suppress the master gene, stopping cells from beginning their destructive course. Until this discovery (and well after) our anti-aging bullet can be exercise. Exercise is the closest thing to an anti-aging pill there is, says Alex Leif, M.D., a professor at the Harvard Medical School of Gerontology. "Regular daily physical activity has been a way of life for virtually ever person who has reached the age of 100 in sound condition." Studies at the National Institute of Aging have repeatedly shown that regular exercise and strength training can have a profound effect on the rate of human aging, and may forestall the disability and diseases we are used to thinking of as the unavoidable price of growing old.

One method of exercise is called strength raining attained by muscle resistance movements such as those provide by the simple use of free weights. Dr. Evans, of the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, conducted an unorthodox study that included putting 90-year-olds through an intensive weight-lifting regimen & #8212; a practice doctors once thought would shatter bones. Dr. Evans found that strength training can increase muscle function by 200 to 300 percent. "We can make a 95-year-old as strong as a 50-year-old person, and a 64-year-old as physically fit as a healthy 30-year-old," Evans said. "And if there are no underlying disorders, mental sharpness is retained." What's more, after participating in Dr. Evans study, a few of the more frail of these senior body builders were able to shed their wheelchairs.

In addition to strength training, aerobic exercise can vastly improve the health of seniors. Only 9% of Americans over age 65 do some form of regular exercise, according to Dr. Xakellis, of the University of Iowa College of Medicine. Studies have shown that sedentary people run twice the risk of heart disease as active people. Coronary artery disease accounts for almost half of all death in the US. The proper aerobic exercise-at any age-increases strength, keeps blood pressure down and increases bone mass. Not to mention that by burning 3,500 calories a week, the risk of early death can be reduced by 50%, says Muscle and Fitness Magazine. My level of preference is to burn this number of calories through workouts daily or at a minimum of 1,000 calories a day. With exercise and proper care, seniors (65+) no longer need to be pushed in a wheelchair; they'll be too busy deciding whether to go scuba diving or white-water rafting.

Not too long ago, serious runners stopped competing past their prime years when their times began to slow noticeably. However, the aging of the 1970's "running boom" generation has heightened the interest in masters running (40 years and over) with each passing year. Consequently, more and more runners look forward to competing within new age categories and measuring themselves against their age-group standards. This has made running a much more interesting sport for runners of all ages and ability levels. The first major breakthrough in age group running came when Jack Foster of New Zealand ran a rather "youthful" 2:11 for the marathon to shatter the existing masters world record for the distance. Foster later was the first runner in his fifties to run 2:20 for the marathon (1). Then at the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles, Portugal's Carlos Lopes, at the age of 37, stunned the running community by winning the gold medal in the marathon in Olympic record time. A year later, Lopes went on to set the world record (2:07:11) in winning the 1985 Rotterdam Marathon (2). Although research shows that runners' VO2max values decline by about 5 percent per decade, several studies have revealed that high intensity training can forestall a significant amount of this decline. Since then, elite male and female masters runners have begun to increasingly challenge and compete on equal ground with some of the top open runners in major road races around the world.

Unlike the open competition category, the masters' age-group record books are being continually rewritten. Age-group superstar Derek Turnbull, 65 (also from New Zealand), destroyed six world records (65-69 age-group) ranging from 800 meters to 10,000 meters within a five-week period. His sensational string of performances included eye-opening times of 4:56 for the mile, 16:38 for the 5K, and 34:42 for the 10K distance (3). While racing performance undoubtedly slow with age, these runners are showing remarkable performance past the age of 35, when it used to be generally agreed that athletes were well past their prime years.

Although the various systems of the body slow down with age, running greatly reduces the rate of the aging process. A major predictor of performance ability among runners is one's aerobic capacity, or VO2max. Most researchers agree that the rate of decline in the aerobic capacity

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