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Too much sitting and too little exercise accelerates ageing

12:00am | & Health

There’s a saying that goes, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it!

It could apply to anything from your local Post Office to a particular bus service, but it also applies to our physical and mental capabilities. It’s really just common sense that the more we do something, the easier and more familiar it feels.

Now, researchers in America have found that the same principle applies to the most basic building blocks of who we are – the cells in our bodies. As people age, their cells inevitably age, but the researchers from the University of California have found that those cells age more quickly in people who rarely exercise and live a sedentary life.

In short, if you don’t use your body’s abilities you will lose them faster and age more quickly, and the bad news for women is that the effect seems more pronounced for them. The study by the University’s San Diego School of Medicine involved 1,500 women aged 64 to 95. It found that that those who spent many hours sitting and exercised for less than 40 minutes per day had cells which were biologically eight years older than their peers who led an active lifestyle.

In more detail, the scientists found that strands of DNA in our bodies have caps on the ends, which can be likened to the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces to stop them fraying. As we get older, these DNA caps – called ‘telomeres’ – naturally get shorter and begin to fray. Shortened telomeres have been linked to an increased risk of major cancers, diabetes and heart disease.

But the researchers found the women in their study who exercised regularly had telomeres that were longer and in better condition. Even a small amount of daily exercise was beneficial to older people.

Lead researcher Dr Aladdin Shadyab said: “We found that women who sat for longer did not have shorter telomere length if they exercised for at least 30 minutes a day. Discussion about the benefits of exercise should start when we are young and physical activity should continue to be part of our daily lives as we get older, even at 80 years old.”

The key finding of the research was that sitting for long periods without any appreciable exercise causes people to age more quickly, and the more you do it, the harder it is to reverse. But by exercising a little at regular intervals and every day, the ageing process can be slowed, and the more you exercise the easier it becomes.

Anyone beginning an exercise regime should start small and build up slowly. If you have a particular condition, speak to your GP about the best type of exercise for you. Many communities have exercise classes especially for older people, even those with mobility issues. Again, you GP should be able to help with details of what’s available in your area, or try your local council for more information.

The NHS recommends that adults aged 65 and over who are generally fit and mobile should aim to manage about two-and-a-half hours of moderate exercise spread over a week, with walking, swimming or cycling all good forms of aerobic activity. Swimming can be particularly good for people with mobility issues as it doesn’t put much stress on the joints.

Exercises to strengthen your major muscles are also helpful, but again it is important to start small and not overdo it. A little and often is the key! Regular exercise can also improve balance and co-ordination, but if you are worried about falling you can still exercise effective while sitting down, known as ‘chairobics’.

National charity Age UK had good advice on its website about keeping fit in older age. For more details, click here.

However, you choose to do it and whatever works best for you, the thing to remember is that if you don’t want to lose it, you need to use it.

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