Blog Post

Exercise counteracts age-associated cellular decline

By Constance Garcia-Barrio

Once, it was thought that a single roll of the genetic dice determined how we would age. Now, there’s a new approach to the way advancing years affect us. Age-associated Cellular Decline (AACD) examines factors that can influence our genes and how we age.

“We knew that cells decline as we age,” said Bret Goodpaster, Ph.D., 53, senior investigator at Advent Health Translational Research Institute in Orlando, Florida and winner of the 2008 Nathan Shock Award from the National Institute on Aging. “A newer concept is that we may be able to slow that process.”

AACD zeroes in on nutrition, muscle tissue and the ability of cells to produce energy. We may find it harder to lift a bag of groceries, because we lose muscle tissue over the years, Goodpaster said. Likewise, our cells produce less energy, so we may find it harder to cook, clean, shop and engage in other activities of daily living. “However, studies of AACD show that changes in lifestyle can have an impact on that process,” he said. “It’s very hopeful.”

Older adults have fewer mitochondria, a tiny structure in cells that produce energy. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of cells. They take fats and carbohydrates and turn them into usable energy. The mitochondria work in tandem with a system that helps the body get rid of free radicals, which can be toxic to cells if left unchecked.

AACD looks at ways to prevent or slow the loss of mitochondria. “We’ve found that one important way to do that is with exercise,” Goodpaster said.

He and his colleagues conducted a small study on the effects of exercise in men and women in their 60s and 70s. “With just a mild program of walking 30 to 40 minutes, three-to-five times a week, their mitochondrial function improved,” Goodpaster said.

Improvement in mitochondrial function translates into less likelihood of developing certain diseases. “Since we know that mitochondria are impacted in certain age-related diseases, such as diabetes, improving mitochondria may help prevent or mitigate the diseases of aging,” he said.

Awareness of the relationship between more exercise and better metabolism and muscle mass may nudge us toward more activity in our daily routine.

“Let’s say you go to the hospital for surgery,” Goodpaster said. “It’s good to take advantage of every opportunity for activity. Doing so will mean that you’ll have more energy when you return home.”

Because hospital stays, especially when lengthy, cause a person to lose muscle mass, it’s good to build up your energy reserves beforehand. Given what’s come to light about AACD,

Goodpaster suggests keeping these points in mind:

  • People age differently. Aging is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Also, your chronological age, or your age in actual years, may be different from your biological age – how old your body feels.
  • Exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can slow the changes that come with aging.
  • You can improve your health through nutrition and lifestyle. Good nutrition, with plenty of fruits and vegetables, plays a key role in staying healthy. If you have a medical condition, it may be worthwhile to sit down with a registered dietician to develop a diet tailored to your needs.

Native Philadelphian Constance Garcia-Barrio writes about many topics, including black history.