Fitness For Longevity


By Gary Small, MD

Author of The Longevity Bible

Today’s lifestyles are sedentary compared to those of our ancestors who were busy hunting and gathering. We spend time sitting in front of computers, driving in cars, and watching our televisions, so many of us need to plan our daily physical exercise. By sticking with those fitness plans, we can increase the number of years we can expect to live. And, regular exercise adds quality to those extra years because it makes us feel better – physically and emotionally.

On average, regular exercise can add two or three years to our life expectancy, according to a study of over 16,000 Harvard alumni, aged 35 to 74. The scientists found that men who played tennis, swam, jogged, or took brisk walks had up to 33 percent lower death rates and a 41 percent lower risk of heart disease when compared to their more sedentary colleagues. Championship skiers and college athletes also have greater life expectancy of four or more years compared with the general population.

Even a modest exercise regimen improves health. Walking 10 to 15 minutes a day, or what adds up to approximately 90 minutes each week, significantly reduces the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Physically active people have lower rates of heart attacks, colon and breast cancer, diabetes, and depression, and these benefits accrue at almost any age. One recent study found that men taking up exercise, even after age 60, can increase their life expectancy.

Routine physical activity may even boost your sex life. A study of approximately 500 middle-aged men found that those who exercised regularly reported more frequent and satisfying sexual encounters compared with their less active counterparts. Another investigation found that the level of sexual activity of middle-aged expert swimmers was comparable to that of the average adult 20 years younger.

By working out on a regular basis, we fortify our muscles, tendons, and cartilage, and increase bone density – all important for keeping our bodies fit and young. The improved strength and balance we gain reduces the risk of falling and injury. Regular exercise also gives us a sense of euphoria by stimulating endorphins – which cause a euphoria sometimes referred to as a "runner’s high." Exercise boosts immune function, improves cardiac health, and increases circulation throughout the body. By helping to control body weight, exercise can lower the risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and strokes.

Pacing is crucial for any exercise routine. Many baby boomers recall their physical education classes from high school, when they had to run around a track, touch their toes, climb the ropes, and work out in ways that later in life might injure more than strengthen. Today’s fitness regimens are varied, and it is often best to sample several exercise techniques to discover what works best for each of us, paying particular attention not just to our health, but also to our enjoyment during workouts.

If someone has an ongoing medical condition, it is best to check with their doctor before starting any exercise program. Also, working out with a friend or group is a great way to get physical and social. You can increase your stamina through mutual encouragement while you chat about other things on your mind, which can reduce stress while it helps pass the time.

Building up our exercise stamina gradually is best for avoiding injury, but it is also important to push ourselves to the next level whenever we’re ready, in order to gain the full benefits from our workouts. Weekend warriors – people who exercise only on weekends or once a week – may have a higher risk for injury and often don’t get enough of a benefit from their exercise for it to be longevity-promoting.


Our exercise routines should cover three fitness categories in order to get our bodies in optimal shape so we can live healthier and longer,: cardiovascular conditioning, balance/flexibility, and strength training. Many exercises provide benefits in more than one of these categories. When we do a series of strength training exercises, we are also getting a certain degree of cardiovascular workout. Some exercise techniques like yoga or Pilates can benefit all three categories.

You may want to emphasize one category more than the others, depending on your goals and your baseline fitness level, although all three are vital. If weight loss is a goal, then increasing the duration and frequency of cardiovascular conditioning workouts can help by burning more calories. Those with injuries might want to give extra focus to strength training, especially to the muscles around and supporting the injured area. And, concentrating on balance and flexibility is crucial to everyone who wants to remain free of pain and avoid future injuries.

Cardiovascular Conditioning

When we exercise continuously so we raise our heart rates, we boost our cardiovascular fitness, and as more oxygen enters the bloodstream we get what is known as the aerobic effect. Regular cardiovascular workouts – running, cycling, aerobics, basketball, hiking, stair-stepping, rowing – will improve the efficiency of the heart, lungs and circulatory system so they can get more nutrients and oxygen to the muscles and other tissues. These kinds of exercise routines also burn calories and help to keep weight down, lower blood pressure, strengthen immune function, and reduce stress, as well as lower the risk for diabetes, dementia, and other age-related illnesses.

Although research generally shows greater cardiac benefit with longer exercise sessions, even brief but regular workouts are longevity promoting. A recent study found that three 10-minute cardiovascular workout sessions – such as brisk walks throughout the day –provided as much benefit in lowering risk for heart disease as a single 30-minute session.

Although longer and more frequent cardiovascular workouts burn more calories and make it easier to lose weight, it’s best to build up gradually to avoid soreness and injuries. It is best to avoid exercise right after a full meal when a good deal of the body’s blood supply goes to the stomach to help digestion, and blood flow to other organs is down. It’s a good idea to look for opportunities throughout the day when you can add an extra pop of cardiovascular work, such as skipping the elevator and taking the stairs, or briskly walking to do a nearby errand instead of hopping in the car.


Regular stretching and balance training helps us maintain or regain better balance and coordination, and makes us less prone to injuries from falls. It also increases the flexibility of our muscles, which can improve our daily performance in everything – even tasks such as lifting, bending, or running to catch a bus. By stretching, we help keep our muscles from getting tight, which tends to improve posture and minimize aches and pains.

Balance is essentially the body's ability to right itself. Our ability to remain stable on our feet involves proprioception, a mechanism that sends messages from the brain to the body and back, letting us know how to react and with how much tension in each muscle group. In general, this is an automatic system, but exercise and training can enhance it.

Stretching reduces stress, decreases muscle soreness and increases performance, as well as helps us to relax during and after a workout. Not all studies have confirmed that stretching exercises prevent injury, but many do show benefits for specific muscle groups (e.g., the hamstrings behind the thighs and the triceps muscles at the back of the arms). Often stretching is done as a warm-up to increase blood flow prior to a workout, and as a cool-down after a cardiovascular or strengthening session to increase flexibility while the muscles and tendons are still warm.

Strength Training

By lifting weights and doing resistance training, we can increase the size and strength of muscles and fortify bones. Denser bones lower the risk for osteoporosis, making them less likely to fracture. Building strength also protects our joints, which can decrease pain from arthritis. Strength training also helps stabilize blood sugar levels, which makes diabetes less likely. The resulting lean body mass raises metabolic rates, which helps burn more calories throughout the day and can be helpful for weight control.

Professional body builders are not the only ones who benefit from strength training. Older men who spend three months doing weight training show that they can double or triple the strength and size of the large muscles in their upper legs. Even residents in nursing homes have shown dramatic improvements in strength and bone density from weight training.

When muscle groups are well-balanced, there is a reduction in the risk of injuries that occur when one muscle group is weaker than its opposing muscle group. To avoid such muscular imbalances, make sure that when you train a specific muscle group, you train the opposing muscle group as well. If you do several reps of biceps training for the muscle at the front of your arm, you would also want to work the opposing muscle, the triceps at the back of the arm, in order to remain balanced. Also, start out by using a light enough weight that allows you to complete 10 to 15 repetitions of each exercise. As your strength increases, so can your weights.

It is important to have adequate periods of rest between training sessions so muscles will repair and rebuild, since strength training tears down muscle fiber,. One approach is to cross-train or work out different muscle groups on alternate days, which allows for that kind of rest. You can train one group of muscles, such as your arms, shoulders and chest on one day, and another group, your thighs, calves and hamstrings, the following day. You might want to try a routine switches between cardiovascular workouts one day, and strength training sessions the next, while including a flexibility (stretching) and balance component in all your workouts.

Gary Small, M.D. Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, is the Director of the UCLA Center on Aging and one of the world's leading physician/scientists in the fields of memory and longevity. He has developed breakthrough brain-imaging technology that allows physicians to detect brain aging and Alzheimer's disease decades before patients show symptoms. Visit for more.