A study into the affects of exercise on older people has found cycling can drastically reverse the impact of ageing, not just on muscle but also on the immune system.
Researchers at the University of Birmingham made the findings after studying 125 amateur cyclists aged 55 to 79.
The men had to be able to cycle 100 km in under 6.5 hours while the women had to be able to cycle 60 km in 5.5 hours.
The participants underwent a series of laboratory tests and were compared to a group of adults who do not partake in regular physical activity. This group consisted of 75 healthy people aged 57 to 80 and 55 healthy young adults aged 20 to 36.
The study showed loss of muscle mass and strength did not occur in those who exercise regularly. The cyclists also did not increase their body fat or cholesterol levels with age and the men’s testosterone levels also remained high.
In surprise findings, the study also revealed exercise had a significant benefit on the immune system. The body's natural defences tend to fade in old age, but the senior cyclists studied showed signs of having an immune system equivalent to that of a healthy 20-year-old.
The findings came as figures show less than half of over 65s do enough exercise to stay healthy, while more than half of those aged over 65 suffer from at least two diseases.
Professor Janet Lord, director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham, said: “Hippocrates in 400 BC said that exercise is man's best medicine, but his message has been lost over time and we are an increasingly sedentary society.
"However, importantly, our findings debunk the assumption that ageing automatically makes us more frail. Our research means we now have strong evidence that encouraging people to commit to regular exercise throughout their lives is a viable solution to the problem that we are living longer but not healthier.”
Dr Niharika Arora Duggal, also of the University of Birmingham, added: “We hope these findings prevent the danger that, as a society, we accept that old age and disease are normal bedfellows and that the third age of man is something to be endured and not enjoyed.”
Professor Stephen Harridge, Director of the Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences at King’s College London, said the findings emphasised the fact cyclists do not exercise because they are healthy, but that they are healthy because they have been exercising.
“Their bodies have been allowed to age optimally, free from the problems usually caused by inactivity," he said. "Remove the activity and their health would likely deteriorate.”
The research findings are detailed in two papers published in the journal Ageing Cell on March 8 and the result of an ongoing joint study by the two universities, funded by the BUPA foundation.