Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Anti-aging exercise: What does the latest study say?

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A recent research study shed some light on a specific type of exercise that will keep you physiologically younger. We all know that cardio, weight lifting, stretching and balance and core training are essential to maintain an active lifestyle well into old age.  But is there a type of exercise in particular that can actually make your cells respond like those of someone who is much younger? 

Researchers at the Mayo institute wanted to find out how different types of exercise impact cellular aging, in specific, mitochondria, which are the powerhouses of our cells.

They took 72 sedentary participants who were younger than 30, and older than 65 and measured their baseline aerobic capacity, blood sugar regulation, gene activity and mitochondrial health. The subjects were randomly divided into 4 groups. “Some of them did vigorous weight training several times a week; some did brief interval training three times a week on stationary bicycles (pedaling hard for four minutes, resting for three and then repeating that sequence three more times); some rode stationary bikes at a moderate pace for 30 minutes a few times a week and lifted weights lightly on other days. A fourth group, the control, did not exercise.” All the exercising groups showed gains in fitness levels, blood sugar regulation and mitochondrial health, but the differences between the groups was striking. 

The group that did interval training showed the most substantial gains, and from this subgroup, the people over 64 showed the sharpest percentage of increase in both the number and the activity of their mitochondria.  This finding implicates that what may have been thought of as inevitable – that the decline in muscle strength as we age, can be corrected through exercise. As always, a few caveats are in order. The sample size was small, although the experiment was repeated after 12 weeks, with similar results. Also,  subjects’ genetic make-up was not taken into account. However, the findings warrant attention and the need for further studies regarding the efficacy of interval training. 

For the full article, go to

While all exercise is useful, it’s instructive that the very foundation of what causes us to get weaker as we age can be substantially altered by doing consistent cardio interval training. So what are the implications for you? What if you are a consistent walker, but have never done intervals before?  What’s the best way to begin?

Start by gradually working your way up. If you ramp up too quickly, you’re at risk for shin splints, tendinitis, and/or muscle cramps.    Increasing your periods of intense activity incrementally will ensure that you mitigate these problems and allow you to gradually improve your cardio capacity. Refer back to the Record of Perceived Exertion in my last blog post, shooting for a level of 7-8 for the high intensity intervals.

Try the following regimen:

  1. 20 minute walk with 4 minutes of moderate pace, 30 seconds of much faster pace, repeat for 4-5 cycles
  2. 20 minute walk with 3.5 minutes of moderate pace, 30 seconds of faster pace, repeat 4-5 cycles
  3. 20-25 minute walk with 3.5 of moderate pace, 45 seconds of faster pace, repeat for 5-6 cycles
  4. 25-30 minute walk with 3 minutes of moderate pace, 45 seconds of faster pace, repeat for 5-6 cycles
  5. 25-30 minute walk with 3 minutes of moderate pace, 1 minute of fast pace, repeat for 6-7 cycles

The regimen above applies if you are just starting out. If you’ve been a consistent walker with intervals of higher intensity, go for intervals of high intensity for 2, 3 or 4 minutes, alternating with 3 minutes of moderate intensity.

I recommend doing each level for at least 3 days before attempting the next level. Note also that in the study, the interval training was done on stationary cycles, which are easy on the joints, and on which it is very easy to ramp up speed with few ill effects. Also, the interval training consisted of 4 minutes of vigorous cycling, with 3 minutes of moderate cycling, so working up to longer periods of vigorous intervals is important.

So what’s the take-away?  See if you can include interval training in your exercise regimen, shooting for a perceived exertion level of  7-8 for the higher intensity.  Your mitochondria will respond with youthful exuberance!

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