The older couple ahead of me on the stairs made their careful way up, step by confident step. There were in their seventies, and lightly bundled for the slight March chill brought on by the winds. I paused and spoke with them as we neared the top of 200 steps. I was on my tenth lap.

We shared some laughter about aging. The need to stay active. While my new friends don’t run the steps like I do, they also cycle and hike.

Not surprisingly, they look it.

Slim and energetic, they clearly enjoy exercise. Lots of it.
The BBC Report

The three of us had also just read the new report, published by the BBC and quoting the Journal Aging Cell, that underscored what we already knew as older athletes:

Doing lots of exercise in old age can prevent the human immune system from declining and protect people from infections, scientists say.

The report had followed 125 long distance cyclists, many of them older than the three of us standing on those sunny steps. Among the findings was that these athletes had the immune systems of a 20-year-old.

For those who are still on the sidelines, here’s the meat of the matter. Not only does regular exercise prevent muscle loss but it also prevents the thalmus from shrinking. That gland produces the T-cells which help the immune system respond to threats.

Like cancer. Rheumatoid arthritis. Helping the body respond more effectively to flu and pneumonia vaccines.

The True Fountain of Youth

When I was in New Zealand for the first time in 1983, I hiked the Routeburn Track on the South Island. I was regularly passed by ancients heading along at a crisp clip, while I struggled to carry all my extra body weight up and down the track’s gorgeous hills. I made a heartfelt promise to myself that I would somehow get to that level of fitness and maintain it the rest of my life.

It took heroic effort, but now I am one of those “ancients.”

What it takes and how it works

At 65, I put in an average two to three hours a day working out in one way or another. To break up long periods of writing, I run my basement stairs, do pushups and pullups, or hike around the block wearing a weighted vest. The regular, consistent activity and the demand I place on my vascular system has led to an extremely efficient heart. Not surprisingly I also have a slim body well past the point most women have lost their waists entirely. Yet I’ve been obese. I know how that feels. I beat a ninety-pound battle thirty years ago this year, and never looked back. I learned to eat differently, but I also increased the variety and difficulty of my workouts.

What we eat is about 85% of how we look. Exercise determines our fitness. Being slim invites compliments. But slimness in and of itself doesn’t make you healthy. Exercise does. Understanding the right kinds of food for your age, body type and fitness level goes a long way towards helping how you look and how your body works. That’s how I lost all that weight and kept it off all these years.  Regular exercise takes advantage of better nutrition and completely overhauls our entire system, from our muscles to our brain power. The issue isn’t about being slim- it’s about being fit.
The Final Payoff

As we age, the one single weapon we all have at our command- other than choosing to eat better- is movement. It involves choice. The choice to get off the couch, move around, walk, run, climb, hike, cycle. It makes no difference what we choose to do. Movement tells the body to work. Hearts pump better, immune systems stay vital, and our muscles develop. On top of that, as the Aging Cell report noted, those cyclists hadn’t accumulated the body fat that so often accompanies old age.

Getting heavier in old age isn’t inevitable.  Getting ill in old age isn’t inevitable. Death is. How we live, the quality of our lives, is determined more by what we’re willing to challenge our bodies to give us. We can reduce our susceptibility to the kinds of issues that plague everyone else simply by choosing to move more.

There is no pill in the entire pharmaceutical universe that can do for us what exercise can. The body is made to work. When you work it, it pays you back with vitality, youthful functions, and extended life.

Now I gotta go run some stairs.