If the fountain of youth does exist, it’s at the end of a cycling path, a new study suggests. A lifetime of vigorous exercise—cycling, in particular—has been shown to slow down aging deep within the body’s immune system.
Scientists looked at 125 adults from ages 55 to 79 who had been amateur cyclists for most of their adult life, comparing them with a group who reported not exercising regularly. To qualify as an amateur cyclist, the men had to be able to cycle 62 miles (100 km) in under 6.5 hours, and the women had to cycle 37 miles (60 km) in 5.5 hours.
Researchers from the University of Birmingham and King’s College London conducted tests on each group. They found that the exercise group didn’t have loss of muscle mass or strength like the other group did. They also did not see an increase in their body fat or cholesterol levels with age and the men’s testosterone levels remained high, suggesting that they may have avoided changes in hormones related to male menopause.
The most interesting finding, though, was that the benefits of vigorous exercise seem to extend beyond just keeping muscles in shape and warding off extra fat. The immune systems of the cyclists actually looked like a much younger person’s. The thymus, which makes T-cells, a type of white blood cell that acts as a soldier of the immune system, typically starts to shrink after the age of 20, making fewer T-cells as we age. But in the cyclists the researchers observed, their thymuses were making as many T-cells as a young person.
“Hippocrates in 400 B.C. said that exercise is man’s best medicine, but his message has been lost over time and we are an increasingly sedentary society,” said Janet Lord, Ph.D., Director of the Institute of Inflammation and Aging at the University of Birmingham. “However, importantly, our findings debunk the assumption that aging automatically makes us more frail.”
Because the immune system and inflammation has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, this finding could have implications for brain health, too. And without a treatment in sight for dementia, prevention like exercise is the best thing you can do for your overall health.
“Nearly everybody can partake in an exercise that is in keeping with their own physiological capabilities,” said Norman Lazarus, Emeritus Professor at King’s College London, and a cyclist himself. “Find an exercise that you enjoy in whatever environment that suits you and make a habit of physical activity. You will reap the rewards in later life by enjoying an independent and productive old age.”
This study was published in the journal Aging Cell.