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Active people age more slowly than sedentary

Cycling helps stave off the ageing processes that affect inactive people. That's the conclusion of a group of researchers from King’s College London and the University of Birmingham, who found that a group of cyclists over the age of 55 had levels of physiological function that would place them at a much younger age compared to the general population.

The study, published today in The Journal of Physiology, recruited 84 male and 41 female cycling enthusiasts aged 55 to 79 to explore how the ageing process affects the human body, and whether specific physiological markers can be used to determine your age.

Emeritus Professor Norman Lazarus, a member of the King’s team and also a cyclist, said: “Inevitably, our bodies will experience some decline with age, but staying physically active can buy you extra years of function compared to sedentary people.

"Cycling not only keeps you mentally alert, but requires the vigorous use of many of the body’s key systems, such as your muscles, heart and lungs which you need for maintaining health and for reducing the risks associated with numerous diseases.”

Researchers deliberately recruited people who might be considered very active for their age. Men had to be able to cycle 100 km in under 6.5 hours and women 60 km in 5.5 hours.

The aim of the study was to find out whether it was possible to determine someone's age from a range of physiological measurements.

Participants spent two days in the lab at King's undergoing a battery of tests. They were measured for cardiovascular, respiratory, neuromuscular, metabolic, endocrine and cognitive functions, bone strength, and health and well-being. Volunteers’ reflexes, muscle strength, oxygen uptake during exercise and peak explosive cycling power were determined.

Researchers found that they couldn't tell the age of individuals in this group from these measurements. Instead, they found that people of different ages could have similar levels of function such as muscle strength, lung power and exercise capacity.

The maximum rate of oxygen consumption showed the closest association with age, but even this could not determine the person's age with any degree of accuracy.

The paper's lead author Dr Ross Pollock from King’s College London, said: “An essential part of our study was deciding which volunteers should be selected to explore the effects of ageing. The main problem facing health research is that in modern societies the majority of the population is inactive. A sedentary lifestyle causes physiological problems at any age. Hence the confusion as to how much the decline in bodily functions is due to the natural ageing process and how much is due to the combined effects of ageing and inactivity.

“In many models of ageing lifespan is the primary measure, but in human beings this is arguably less important than the consequences of deterioration in health. Healthy life expectancy – our healthspan - is not keeping pace with the average lifespan, and the years we spend with poor health and disabilities in old age are growing.”

Participants were asked to perform a basic but important test of body function. The time someone takes to stand from a chair, walk three metres, turn, walk back and sit down can show they're at a risk of falling of they take more than 15 seconds. But even the oldest riders in the study had times within the norm for healthy young adults.

The study concluded that people age at individual rates, and that more research is needed that follows the same healthy and exercising individuals over time to better understand the effects of ageing the body. 

Professor Stephen Harridge, senior author and Director of the Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences at King’s said: “Because most of the population is largely sedentary, the tendency is to assume that inactivity is the inevitable condition for humans. However, given that our genetic inheritance stems from a period when high levels of physical activity were the likely norm, being physically active should be considered to play an essential role in maintaining health and wellbeing throughout life.”

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.