Can exercise actually reverse aging?

By Alpana Mohta, MD, DNB, FEADV, FIADVL, IFAAD | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published May 14, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study identifies bis(monoacylglycero)phosphate (BMP) as a harmful lipid contributing to aging; aerobic training, such as cycling, has been found to decrease BMP levels and potentially slow down aging. 

  • Resistance training, particularly at low intensities, is more effective than aerobic training in improving skin health and muscle growth in aging individuals.

  • Despite the known benefits of physical activity for healthy aging, adherence to exercise guidelines remains low, especially among older adults; HCPs play a crucial role in providing practical advice on integrating physical activity into daily routines to promote healthy aging.

The global population is aging rapidly, with predictions indicating that by 2050, there will be 1.5 billion individuals aged 65 and over. In the US alone, by 2035, the elderly are expected to outnumber those under 18.[]

Over the next 20 years, the global cost of aging will hit $47 trillion in healthcare expenses. 

Given the broad spectrum of health issues associated with aging, we need strategies that address aging as a whole rather than focusing on individual age-related diseases. Exercise is one such strategy. 

Lipid-induced aging

A recent study published in Nature Aging reports that a specific type of fat molecule, bis(monoacylglycero)phosphate (BMP), is a major contributor to aging.[] The research employed lipidomic technology to analyze fat molecules across multiple tissues in young and old mice. The investigators identified over 1,200 unique lipid types. Among these, they found a pervasive elevation of BMP in older mice—a pattern similarly observed in human muscle tissues sampled from individuals aged between 65 and 80. 

The findings suggested that BMP accumulation might correlate with, and potentially drive, aging. The researchers tested their hypothesis by instituting short-term exercise regimens in postmenopausal women, whereupon this increase in lipids was found to be reversible.

Can exercise decelerate aging?

According to a systematic review from Missouri Medicine, both moderate and vigorous physical activities lower cardiovascular and overall mortality rates.[]

Interestingly, engaging in higher amounts of moderate activity was found to be more effective at reducing these mortality rates than equivalent amounts of vigorous physical activity.

Aerobic training

Research indicates that among aerobic exercises, cycling offers the most benefits for healthy aging.

The study from Nature Aging revealed that just 1 hour of “moderate-to-vigorous exercise” in the form of cycling daily over 4 days significantly reduced BMP levels in human subjects.[]

In middle-aged mice, a 2023 study published in Physiology International found that high-intensity aerobic exercises (human equivalent, intense cycling or sprinting) increased the activity of proteins AMPK and PGC-1α. These proteins are involved in energy regulation and cell health, which can contribute to better aging.[]

Researchers from the University of Birmingham and King’s College London explored the aging process in 125 amateur cyclists between the ages of 55 and 79 who had been physically active throughout their lives.[]

The findings indicated that the physically active adults did not experience the typical age-related decline in muscle mass. Moreover, regular exercise boosted the immune system, with the thymus producing T cells at a rate comparable to that of much younger individuals.[]

Resistance training

Resistance training outperforms aerobic training for healthy skin aging, as evident from a 2023 Japanese study.[] Resistance training was superior to aerobic training for rejuvenating aging skin among healthy middle-aged women over 16 weeks. While both resistance and aerobic training significantly improved skin elasticity and upper dermal structure, only resistance training increased the dermal thickness—by reducing levels of CCL28, N,N-dimethylglycine, and CXCL4, while boosting dermal biglycan expression. 

Among the various modes of resistance training, low-intensity training is touted to be superior to high-intensity resistance training. 

The mouse study from Physiology International found that high-intensity resistance exercise (equivalent to lifting heavy weights) increased muscle size but did not activate the mTOR pathway as expected, which is usually associated with muscle growth. However, low-intensity resistance exercise (eg, lifting lighter weights) activated a pathway involving proteins known as Akt, mTOR, and p70S6K, which are linked to muscle growth.

Counseling patients on staying active

Despite the many benefits of physical activity, just half of American adults adhere to recommended aerobic exercise guidelines. Only 30% comply with guidelines for muscle strengthening twice per week, and fewer meet both standards. Among seniors over 75, just 8.7% are doing recommended muscle-strengthening exercises.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults should aim for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise weekly, plus resistance training for muscle-strengthening twice a week.[] 

As a healthcare professional, you can help patients understand the importance of physical activity and find practical ways to integrate it into their daily lives. You can advise them in the following ways:

  • Set realistic goals and gradually increase the intensity or duration of their activities. 

  • Combine aerobic training like cycling, swimming, and brisk walking with bodyweight exercises and low-to-medium weight lifting.

  • For older adults, focus on gentle strength-building exercises that are less intimidating and more feasible, like chair squats and wall push-ups.

  • Suggest ways to keep track of their progress, such as fitness apps or a simple exercise diary. 

What this means for you

Science is starting to see aging as something we can treat or at least delay. Regular exercise slows down aging signs like muscle loss and immune decline. Yet, adherence to exercise guidelines remains low. For healthy aging, advise patients to keep active with aerobic and resistance exercises regularly from an early age. 

Read Next: Eat this much salt for better sleep
Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter