Everyone knows that exercise is good for you. But it’s not just beneficial for the young, healthy and already fit. It’s also one of the best defenses against the toughest aspects of aging.
Exercise not only improves heart and lung health, but research shows that even modest physical activity is good for the brain, bones, muscles and mood. Numerous studies have found that lifelong exercise may keep people healthier for longer; delay the onset of 40 chronic conditions or diseases; stave off cognitive decline; reduce the risk of falls; alleviate depression, stress and anxiety; and may even help people live longer.
“Exercise is the best defense and repair strategy that we have to counter different drivers of aging,” says aging researcher Nathan LeBrasseur, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. It can’t reverse aging, per se, he cautions, but “there’s clear evidence that exercise can activate the machinery necessary for DNA repair.”
Of course, the sooner you begin and the longer you remain physically active, the better. But physical activity is important at every age. Research on the effects of exercise on nursing-home residents found improvements in their physical and cognitive abilities as well as on their mental health.
Something else to keep in mind, says LeBrasseur, is that while your risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer or other conditions of aging may not substantially increase until middle age or later, the underlying biology for those conditions is in motion early in life. Genetics and the lifestyle factors you choose will determine that trajectory, but these can influence your likelihood for disease at any point. “So, there’s no such thing as too little, too late.”
The good news is that you don’t have to run a marathon or go to the gym to reap the anti-aging benefits of exercise. Even modest physical activity—taking the stairs instead of the elevator, gardening or walking the dog—has physical and cognitive benefits, as long as you do it regularly. Here are just some of the ways research shows regular activity benefits your health.