The Rumor: Exercise is the answer to staying young, so the more I do it the longer I'll live

Popular exercise trends range anywhere from 8-Minute Abs to 80 minutes on the elliptical, and even include extreme ultra marathons. Advocates of each present some piece of science that validates why their exercise program is superior for weight loss, maximum strength or endurance. While there is some truth to the claims, when it comes to the big picture of health and longevity, what's the scientific consensus for optimal anti-aging? 

The Verdict: Exercising more helps, but don't go overboard

There's a connection between the average duration of exercise and a person's expected lifespan, but there is a “however” involved in the answer. Researchers agree that there's such a thing as exercising too long, and also that intensity needs to be taken into consideration when determining the best exercise equation for your personal goals.

Standard Recommendation

It's well known that a daily routine of physical activity is considered highly beneficial for the prevention of age-related disease. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, in order to reduce the risk of most disease (cardiovascular, cancer, Alzheimers, diabetes, etc.), one should optimally engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week (that’s 30 minutes, five times a week). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends the same 150 minutes of moderate exercise for healthy adults.

How Long Is Too Long?

But what happens if you exercise for more than 150 minutes per week? Are you adding years to your life? A recent observational long-term study involving 416,000 individuals found that exercise improved longevity in a “dose-dependent” fashion. That means that for every minute you go beyond the recommended 30 minutes, you increase your longevity advantage.

The 'However'  

In other studies (on runners) -- one appropriately subtitled, "Is more better?" -- the results showed that after you exercise beyond 60 minutes or so, the anti-aging benefits start to diminish. The study also looked at the pace (intensity) of the runners and found that the higher-intensity exercise did not have the age-protecting effect that the moderate pace produced. As it turns out, while exercising at a moderate pace may slow the rate at which we approach our mortality, going too fast for too long... won't.

The Proof Is In Our Cells

Most researchers now accept telomere length as a reliable marker of cell aging. Telomeres are the “caps” on the ends of our chromosomes, and a longer telomere translates to a potentially longer life. Multiple reports have revealed the lifespan-extending potential of physical activity. In one study where non-exercisers were compared to both moderate and high-intensity exercisers, the results indicated that moderate physical activity provided a protective effect on telomere length, whereas non-exercisers and those who trained at a high intensity both had shorter telomeres.

The Sardinian/Centenarian Workout

I recently visited Sardinia, Italy, where there's a very high percentage of centenarians (people living to 100 and beyond). When I asked these healthy elders what they did for exercise, their answers did not include the Insanity workout DVD, nor had they ever trained for a marathon. What they did all have in common was all-day moderate activity that included gardening, walking long distances to work and community activities. 

The Bottom Line: What Should You Be Doing?

If you only have limited time to exercise (or you're just beginning an exercise program), the good news is that just 15 minutes a day can help increase your number of years on the planet. Here are some other suggestions to gear up your physical activity toward optimal longevity: 

  • Wear a heart rate monitor to find your optimal anti-aging heart rate zone. You can use an online tool from WebMd or the Zone Calculator to figure your target heart rate.
  • Aim to do a moderately paced workout beyond 30 minutes, gradually working up to 60.
  • Incorporate one-minute higher-intensity intervals into your workout instead of continuously doing physically stressful activities with no rest periods in between.
  • Evolution hasn’t prepared our bodies to go to the gym and work out vigorously for an hour and then sit around all day. Find ways to keep moving at work. Take the stairs. Break up the office-chair marathons by walking around when you’re on the phone -- and yes, adding more minutes of moderate exercise to your workday just might be your prescription for living longer.

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