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Healthy Monday: Runners show no signs of slowing

Study: Aerobics can delay aging process

POSTED: August 22, 2008 5:02 a.m.
TOM REEDS/The Times

Emileigh Greene runs ahead of Jon Pope, left, David Ball and Michael Green during a lunchtime workout at CrossFit in Gainesville. A new study shows that running may slow down the aging process.

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"Run for your life" isn’t just a figure of speech.

A report published in the Archives of Internal Medicine last week found that people who jog or do other regular aerobic exercise live longer than those who don’t.

No surprise there; everybody knows that being physically fit reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease.

But what’s intriguing about this study is that not only do runners live significantly longer than nonrunners, but exercise actually seems to slow down the aging process.

Since 1984, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have been tracking two groups of volunteers older than age 50: the "ever-runners" and the "never-runners."

After 19 years, when many of the participants were in their 70s or 80s, 15 percent of the runners had died, compared to 34 percent of the nonrunners. The bodies of the runners also appeared to be less "old." They had better bone density, healthier arteries, less inflammation, stronger immune systems and fewer cognitive problems such as memory loss and dementia.

In the 21st year of the study, researchers measured how well the volunteers could handle eight basic activities of daily life, such as walking, eating and dressing themselves. The runners had fewer disabilities, and the deficits they had were milder than those of the non-runners.

Researchers expected that as time went on, the two groups would become equally debilitated. But that didn’t happen. The benefits of exercise persisted over a lifetime, even when people slowed down and switched to less strenuous activities as they aged.

It might seem that these researchers have discovered, if not the fountain of youth, at least a medical miracle.

"It’s staggering what the potential could be if people just took better care of themselves," said Dr. John Alsobrook, a physician with Advantage Sports Medicine in South Hall. "If you could ban smoking and get everyone to exercise for 30 minutes three times a week, you could cut health care costs by 75 percent in a 10-year span."

But Alsobrook and his fellow doctors won’t be going out of business anytime soon. He said it’s difficult to convince many patients that they’ll feel better if they just exercise regularly.

However, he’s also had patients who could serve as role models to those who can’t seem to pry themselves off the couch.

"I know plenty of 80-plus-year-olds who are still running," he said.

What’s the secret? What is it about exercise that seems to help the entire body function better?

One critical factor, said Alsobrook, is that the blood of a healthy person can carry more oxygen.

"Exercise improves your ability to perfuse your tissues, which need oxygen in order to heal," he said. "(Fit people) who do injure themselves are able to recover more easily."

On the other hand, exercise itself can cause damage. "Running can be pretty brutal on the body if you don’t warm up properly and eat properly and rest properly," Alsobrook said. "It takes a significant toll, not on the joints but on the muscles."

Contrary to popular belief, the study found that the "pounding" of running was not necessarily harmful to the knees. X-rays of runners looked about the same as those of people who never ran.

Alsobrook said this confirms what he has observed in his practice.

"I’ve had many patients who’ve been running all their lives and they have the knees of 18-year-olds," he said.

Many other patients do complain to him that their knees hurt if they run, he said, but running didn’t cause their knee problem. "(The pain) can be due to a lot of different things, including genetics, weight, body mechanics and old injuries," he said.

But if running hurts, do something else. Study subjects who chose other vigorous activities, such as biking, swimming or aerobic dancing, were just as fit as the runners.

Alsobrook said to avoid putting too much stress on a single part of the body, people should alternate different types of exercise.

"I think triathlon is becoming more popular because people are understanding the importance of cross-training," he said.

Most runners in the Hall County area agree that variety is the spice of life.

"I run at least three days a week, but I add strength training, free weights, a bit of cycling, some flatwater kayaking," said Jack Hare, 50, of Gainesville.

Hare has been running for about 30 years. He is a member of the Lanier Running Club and often competes in races.

"One thing that got me so active was that my father died at age 41 of a heart attack," he said. "He had a cholesterol problem."

Knowing he has a family history of heart disease has been a strong motivating factor for Hare, who is currently in good cardiovascular health.

"To me, the benefits (of exercise) are lowered blood pressure, positive mental attitude and stress reduction, and weight control," he said. "There’s also the social aspect. You become friends with a lot of people (through running)."

Exercise is a way of life for Wauka Mountain resident Wes Wessely, who serves as president of the Lanier Running Club.

"From the health standpoint, I can’t say enough about it," he said. "I’m 60, but don’t feel much over 40. I can still do anything with my kids. I’m not gasping for air, I have good joint flexibility. I’m not held back at all physically."

Wessely took up running at age 28, after noticing that he was gaining weight. He soon realized how much he enjoyed the activity.

"I plan to continue running as long as I can," he said. "I’m not obsessive-compulsive about it, but it contributes to my mental well-being. Running clears out the burdens of the world for me."

It also saves him a lot of money. At 60, he takes very few medications and rarely needs to see a doctor. "I spend virtually nothing on health care, just an annual physical," he said.

To get the maximum health benefit, people should develop the exercise habit in childhood and continue throughout their lifespan. But research shows that any degree of exercise, at any age, is better than none at all.

"It’s never too late to start," said Hare.



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