Q: I'm a baby boomer and have been consistently eating healthfully and exercising—doing cardio and weight training—for almost 20 years. My body still looks good for my age, but not as good as it did 10 years ago. Is it possible for an older body to look hard and lean like a young body? If so, what should I do differently?
A: How "old" you look depends on several different factors. While there doesn't seem to be a study that has compared people who eat well and those who don't with how old they look, every cell in the body needs nutrients to stay healthy. Nutrient deficiencies of various types can manifest physically (accelerating the graying of hair, causing variations in skin texture and condition, etc.). So, it stands to reason that the less junk and the more nutritious food that you eat, the younger your body will look.
At the very least, regular exercisers seem to have younger-acting bodies. In fact, a study published recently in the Archives of Internal Medicine compared the DNA of 2,401 adult twins. The men and women reported details about their overall health, such as the presence of illness, and also how much recreational exercise and other types of physical activity that they had performed during the past year. They estimated how often and how intensely they exercised. The inactive subjects exercised for only about 16 minutes per week. The moderate exercisers did, on average, around 102 minutes per week. The heavy exercisers performed around 199 minutes per week.
The results showed that those who exercised the least were more likely to be overweight, as reflected by their Body Mass Index. And when the subjects' blood cells were examined, researchers found that those who exercised the most had the longest telomeres, or DNA segments, which tend to shorten with age. So, on the inside anyway, the regular exercisers had "younger" bodies than the more sedentary folks.
Since the length of telomeres of white blood cells is influenced by genetics, a comparison between 67 pairs of these twins was also made because they have similar genetic tendencies. The researchers found that there was still a significant difference between a more active twin and a less active twin. (Keep in mind that this study only found a link between DNA length and physical activity.) Because researchers relied on what the subjects told them, the study did not prove that more exercise results in "younger" DNA. (To get proof, a clinical experiment would have to be performed on a group of people.) Still, the fact that even the twins showed differences suggests that exercising may have seriously positive effects on aging.
Of course, we're talking about white blood cells, not buff body parts. There's no doubt that exercise, especially weight-training, can keep muscles strong and firm. And since muscle mass declines with age, a person who weight trains, in addition to doing cardio, is likely to have a firmer and younger-looking body.
But exercise isn't always a foolproof way to look younger because looking older may also be a result of weathered skin; people who exercise outdoors may be exposed to more radiation from the sun, and therefore may have more wrinkles. People who are too lean may have a gaunt face with more noticeable wrinkles compared to a person who has more fat in his or her face. (Note that you can be fit and overweight.) And no matter what shape a person is in, dated hair-dos and frumpy outfits may add years to how they look!
On the other hand, perhaps the most potent sign of youthfulness is energy. And someone who eats nutritious foods and who exercises regularly tends to have boundless energy. While you may not be able to look 20 when you're 60, one thing is for sure: Keeping all the cells in your body in shape with the right foods (lots of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains) and with daily cardiovascular and weekly resistance workouts will ensure that you look darn good for your age.
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