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02 Mar 2015

Every year billions of dollars are spent on potions and creams, as well as the odd nip and tuck, in the pursuit of youthful looks.

But the key to appearing and, more importantly, feeling young in the face of advancing years can be found in the garages and backyard sheds of homes across the country.

A British study has found that the humble bicycle, used regularly, can enable people to stave off many of the physical and mental aspects of ageing, leaving those in their fifties, sixties and even seventies, with minds and physiques equivalent to people half their age.

Researchers at King’s College, London wanted to explore how ageing affects the body, and whether there were specific physiological markers that could be used to determine age.

For the study, they recruited 84 men and 41 women aged between 55 and 79 years who were keen cyclists, and subjected them to tests measuring a wide variety of characteristics from cardiovascular, metabolic, endocrine and cognitive functions through to assessments of muscular and bone strength, reflexes and oxygen uptake.

The test subjects were fit individuals. To qualify for the study, the men needed to be able to cycle 100 kilometres in less than six-and-a-half hours, while the women had to cycle 60 kilometres in less than five-and-a-half hours. Smokers, heavy drinkers and those with high blood pressure and other health conditions were excluded.

What they found suggests there is nothing inevitable about physical decline with ageing.

In their examinations, the researchers found that the effects of ageing were far from obvious, and people of different ages could have similar levels of function, such as muscular strength, lung power and exercise capacity.

Maximum rate of oxygen consumption appeared to have the closest correlation with advancing years, but even this characteristic could not provide an accurate guide to the age of any individual.

In many aspects, the participants had the physical and mental characteristics and agility of people much younger. For example, even the oldest participants were able to complete a simple test for falling risk – involving the time taken to rise from a chair, walk three metres, return to the char and sit down – at levels well within the norm for a young, healthy adult.

Lead author Dr Ross Pollock said the research suggested the effects of ageing were likely to be highly variable according to the characteristics of the individual.

Dr Pollock said one of the challenges facing researchers is to try and separate the physical effects of ageing from those of a sedentary lifestyle, given the prevalence of sedentary lifestyles in modern society.

“In many models of ageing, lifespan is the primary measure. But in human being this is arguably less important than the consequences of deterioration in health [such as from sedentary behaviour],” he said.

Co-author Professor Stephen Harridge said that “because most of the population is largely sedentary, the tendency is to assume that inactivity is the inevitable condition for humans. However, given that our genetic inheritance stems from a period when high levels of physical activity were likely the norm, being physically active should be considered to play an essential role in maintaining health and wellbeing throughout life.”

Emeritus Professor Norman Lazarus, another member of the research team, said it was inevitable that there be some physical decline with age, “but staying physically active can buy you extra years of function compared to sedentary people”.

Professor Lazarus, who is a cyclist, said cycling was a good activity because it “not only keeps you mentally alert, but requires the vigorous use of many of the body’s key systems, such as your muscles, heart and lungs”.

The study has been published in The Journal of Physiology.


Adrian Rollins

Published: 02 Mar 2015