See the photo above? That’s my friend Mark Sisson. He’s 62. He’s an absolute beast. You can learn his secrets in my podcast interview with him here.
As I write this article, I am at a private health event jam-packed with anti-aging physicians and longevity specialists. One of my favorite things to do in between sessions and at meals is to approach the fittest and healthiest-looking of these folks, and ask them what their top exercise modality and fitness secret is to stay young, look good naked and live a long time.
After all, why not live your entire life with a fully optimized body and brain? I absolutely dig the idea of being able to play football with my grandkids when I’m 90, to go freediving when I’m 95, or to hunt an elk when I’m 100.
So in today’s article, I’m going to give you the latest research on anti-aging protocols, and the anti-aging secrets I’ve learned and observed from five of the fittest old people on the face of the planet (and yes, I’m going to complete ignore things like the 50+ natural supplements they take every morning, fish oil mega-dosing, or fringe juicing recipes and instead simply focus on their natural food intake or their movement and exercise protocols).
This is a topic near and dear to my heart, since I not only want to live a long time, but I want to look as good as possible doing it and be able to have my brain and body work as optimally as possible, even if modern society thinks I should be sitting in a rocking chair in a care facility watching Seinfeld re-runs.
Let’s delve in, shall we?
Mitochondria, Telomeres, Strength Training & What It Means For Something To Qualify As An “Anti-Aging” Activity
In his excellent article series on anti-aging, anti-aging fitness expert Clarence Bass highlights this study showing that six months of progressive resistance training made the gene expression pattern of aging mitochondria appear significantly younger.
Muscles can become smaller and weaker with age (a process known as sarcopenia), and evidence suggests that a key part of the decline occurs in a component of muscle cells called the mitochondria, the primary engine of energy production.
From the study, which was done on men at an average age of 70 years old, researchers reported that “…the older individuals were able to improve strength by approximately 50%, to levels that were only 38% less than that of young individuals…”. This means that seniors engaged in weight training closed the strength gap between themselves and their counterparts who were nearly 40 years younger from 59% to 38%, which is an improvement of almost 36% in a mere six months of the study.
Muscle biopsies from the study showed “a remarkable reversal of the expression profile of 179 genes associated with age and exercise training…Genes that were down-regulated with age were correspondingly up-regulated with exercise, while genes that were up-regulated with age, were down-regulated with exercise.”
The researchers summed things up by reporting that “healthy older adults show a gene expression profile in skeletal muscle consistent with mitochondrial dysfunction and associated processes such as cell death, as compared with young individuals. Moreover, following a period of resistance exercise training in older adults, we found that age-associated transcriptome expression changes were reversed, implying a restoration of a youthful expression profile.”
So when it comes to mitochondria, weight training reversed nearly 40 years of aging!
But exercise doesn’t only affect mitochondria. Two more studies show how exercise protects DNA from the wear and tear of aging, and how the addition of fast-twitch muscle fibers precipitate fat loss and improve metabolic function – primarily by acting on telomeres.
Telomeres cap the DNA chromosomes in your cells and protect these chromosomes from damage. As you age, telomeres progressively wear and shorten from repeated cell division, oxidative stress, inflammation, and other metabolic processes, eventually leaving the cell’s chromosomes unprotected. When the caps are completely eroded or disappear, the wear and tear begins to cut into your genes, causing cells to become damaged and discarded as you grow older.
In this next study, scientists measured telomeres in twins to gauge the effect of exercise on aging, hypothesizing that “telomere dynamics might chronicle the cumulative burden of oxidative stress and inflammation and, as such, serve as an index of biological age” and that “physical activity level may have an [independent] effect on telomere attrition”.
They studied 2401 twins (2152 women and 249 men, aged 18 to 81), used questionnaires on physical activity level, smoking status, disease status, and socioeconomic status, and extracted DNA from blood samples.
So what did they find in this study on twins?
Telomere length decreased with age. No surprises there. But both the women and men who were physically active had longer telomeres than those who were sedentary, even after adjusting for the influence of age, weight, disease, socioeconomic status, and smoking.
In addition, the study participants who spent more than 3 hours each week engaged in vigorous physical activity (such as lifting weights) had longer telomeres than subjects 10 years younger, suggesting that individuals who eschew placing a vigorous load on their body may wind up biologically older by 10 years.
Obviously, since they were studying twins, these differences weren’t due to genes, but rather due to the lifestyle factor of exercise. When one twin exercised significantly more than the other, they had longer, more durable telomeres.
In the next study, researchers found that replacing slow-twitch type I muscle fibers with stronger and faster type II muscle fibers produced a significant reduction of fat mass and insulin resistance. Endurance training develops slow-twitch fibers, but strength training builds fast-twitch fibers.
For this study, researchers used a genetically engineered mouse that contained a muscle-growth regulating gene called Akt1 that could be turned on and off by the researchers. Activating Akt1 caused the mice to grow type II fibers, without exercise (important to note, since mice don’t really lift weights that well, even when commanded to by scientists in white lab coats). When the Akt1 gene was turned on, the mice took on the characteristics of a lean and powerful sprinter or weight lifter, and when the gene was turned off, the mice reverted to a predominance of type I muscle fibers, along with becoming more obese and insulin resistant (notably, this was without an actual change in diet!).
The researchers reported that “remarkably, type II muscle growth was associated with an overall reduction in body mass, due to a large decrease in fat mass. In addition, blood tests showed that these mice became metabolically normal [with no insulin resistance]. This work shows that type 2 muscle just doesn’t allow you to pick up heavy objects, it is also important in controlling whole body metabolism. It appears that the increase in type 2 muscle fiber orchestrates changes in the body through its ability to communicate with other tissues”.
Beyond the age of 30, we lose approximately six pounds of muscle mass per decade, and these findings indicate that interventions designed to increase skeletal muscle mass (such as weight training) may prove to be critical weapons in the fight against obesity and obesity-related ailments, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and cancer.
The key point here of course is that weight training, due to it’s recruitment of type II muscle fibers, appears to be more effective than cardio, endurance and aerobics for fat loss, weight control, essentially converting the cells into a fat-burning machine.
Finally, yet another study on strength training effects on telomere length in human skeletal muscle looked into reports of a phenomenon of abnormally short telomeres in skeletal muscle of athletes who had overtraining and exercise-associated fatigue. This important study looked into the question of whether long-term hard exercise might have deleterious effects on muscle telomeres. So, using muscle biopsies, the researchers compared telomere length of a group of power lifters who had trained for an average of eight years against that of a group of healthy, active subjects who had no history of strength training.
There was absolutely no abnormal shortening of telomeres in the power lifters. As a matter of fact, telomere lengths in the power lifters were significantly higher than those of the control group, and telomere length was positively correlated to the power lifters’ individual records in the squat and deadlift!
These results show for the first time that long-term weight training is not associated with an abnormal shortening of skeletal muscle telomere length, and that the heavier the load you put on your muscles, the longer your telomeres will tend to be.
Anti-Aging and Weight Training
But let’s get this out of the petri dish and into the real world. Telomeres and mitochondria are one thing, but could activities like weight training and load-bearing and power lifting actually make you live longer?
Let’s take a look. In a very recent study from last month, older adults who met twice-weekly strength training guidelines showed lower odds of dying. This study is the first to demonstrate the association in a large, nationally representative sample over an extended time period, particularly in an older population.
Other studies have certainly found that older adults who are physically active have better quality of life and a lower risk of mortality, and that regular exercise is associated with health benefits, including preventing early death, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.
But up to this point, while the health benefits of basic physical activity and aerobic exercise have been well established, less data has been collected on strength training. As mentioned above, researchers have begun to demonstrate benefits of strength training on strength, muscle mass and physical function, and they’ve also shown improvements from strength training in chronic conditions such as diabetes, osteoporosis, low back pain and obesity. Smaller studies have also observed that greater amounts of muscle strength are associated with lower risks of death.
But this most recent study was a bit of a bigger deal.
To examine the mortality effects on older adults who meet strength training guidelines, researchers examined data from the 1997-2001 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) linked to death certificate data through 2011. The NHIS collects health, disease and disability data of the U.S. population from a nationally representative sampling of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and the 1997-2001 survey included more than 30,000 adults age 65 and older.
During the survey period, more than 9 percent of older adults reported strength training at least twice a week. The researchers followed the respondents for 15 years through death certificate data from the National Center for Health Statistics National Death Index.
Check this out…
…older adults who strength trained at least twice a week had 46 percent lower odds of death for any reason than those who did not. They also had 41 percent lower odds of cardiac death and 19 percent lower odds of dying from cancer. Older adults who met strength training guidelines were, on average, slightly younger, and were more likely to be married white males with higher levels of education. They were also more likely to have normal body weight, to engage in aerobic exercise and to abstain from alcohol and tobacco.
When the researchers adjusted for demographic variables, health behaviors and health conditions, this statistically significant effect on mortality remained. Even after the researchers controlled for physical activity level, people who reported strength exercises appeared to see a greater mortality benefit than those who reported physical activity alone.
So this study provides solid, statistically significant evidence that strength training in older adults is beneficial for anti-aging, and goes way above and beyond improving muscle strength and physical function.
Enter The 5 Fittest Old People
In my article Can Seniors Get Stronger?, I address the common myth propagated among exercise enthusiasts that at around 50-60 years old, people simply lose the ability to get stronger.
While it is indeed correct that you lose muscle as you age (a process called sarcopenia), in that article, I reveal new research that proves you can stave off this decline-and quite significantly. And in my article How To Look Good Naked And Live A Long Time., I detail a research-based exercise program that allows you to also do things like maintain mitochondrial energy producing capacity, keep metabolism elevated, increase muscular endurance and lactic acid buffering capacity and, well, “look good naked” as you age.
But when it comes to defying aging and staying as fit as possible as you age, lab-based science is one thing and personal in-the-trenches, real-world experience is quite another thing. So I find it fascinating to study some of the fittest old people on the face of the planet to see exactly what they’re doing.
So, now let’s dive into what got me interested in writing this article in the first place. A few days ago, I was reading an article from Vice entitled: “The Healthiest Old Person on the Planet Explains How to Stay in Shape”, in which we’re introduced to a man named Charles Eugster, who is 96 years old.
Charles is a decorated British sprinter. He holds world records in the 200m (indoor) and 400m (outdoor) sprints, as well as British records in the 60m (indoor), 100m (outdoor), and 200m (outdoor). This is all pretty impressive, considering that most guys his age can barely walk across the street (if they’re even still alive!). But that’s not all.
Charles is also a body-builder, a public speaker, a writer, a rower, a wakeboarder, an entrepreneur, and a fashion designer, planning his own line in elderly couture. He’s even claimed that he’s witnessed some of his white and gray hairs turn brown! While I’m skeptical of that last claim, I do know one thing: he’s certainly seemed to have cracked the code on how to stay fit as you age.
Let’s delve into Charles Eugster’s secrets, along with four other extremely fit “old people”, shall we?
Anti-Aging Tip From Fit Old Guy #1: Charles Eugster – “Eat Real Food”.
Sure, Charles lifts weights, which is crucial for maintaining muscle mass and hormones as you age, and has (as you learned above) even been shown to decrease the rate at which telomeres shorten (which is associated with accelerated aging), but regarding his diet, he says in his interview with Vice:
“Variety is key. I start every day with a protein shake because, as you get older, your protein synthesis no longer functions as well. I avoid sugar and eat lots of meat, especially fat. I’ve been on a fat trip lately. Fat! Piles of fat. Yet, I was in a supermarket the other day and was perplexed to find yogurt with zero fat. What on earth is that? The idea of the nutrition pyramid where, at the top, is a little fat and meat, and at the bottom a lot of carbohydrates, is, excuse me, bullshit. Humans are so unbelievably stupid that we have begun to tinker with food. Our theories of nutrition have resulted in a pandemic of obesity. Can you imagine a hunter-gatherer enjoying a low-fat yogurt? Let me tell you this, too: I read a report recently which said that a fatty diet also increases your drive.”
So there you have it. It’s highly unlikely, if you come from a Northern European ancestry like Charles, you can eat modern fat-free and low-fat foods, live a long time and look good doing it! However, as you learned in last week’s article 26 Little-Known Health-Hacking Lessons Learned From 8 Books I Read This Week, there are certain populations (such as the Okinawans) who, due to genetics, amylase production and hormonal response to carbohydrates, may be able to get by on less fat. But they’re still not eating any modern frankenfuels.
Tip From Fit Old Guy #2: Laird Hamilton – “Learn New Stuff”.
In my recent podcast interview with big-wave surfer and 52 year old Laird Hamilton, who is still just as spry and quick-moving as the 20-something year old surfers he puts to shame on huge waves around the world, Laird highlights one of his best anti-aging secrets: constantly learn new stuff.
Check out this short video that my friend and fellow fitness enthusiast Dustin Maher shot of Laird explaining exactly how he “never grows old”:
Laird’s garage, where we filmed the video, is a personal testament to this philosophy, and is chock full of new toys that Laird has invented to surf waves in different ways, along with skis, snowboards, jetskis, balance devices, and all manner of different tools to challenge his body in new ways as he forces his brain and muscles to maintain or build new neurons to learn all these new skills. People often ask me why I delve into everything from archery to snowboarding to spearfishing to obstacle racing to kickboxing to ukulele and beyond, and this is one of the biggest reasons why!
Just remember, as I highlighted last week in a lesson learned from brain expert Dr. Daniel Amen, variety is key:
Tip From Fit Old Guy #3: Mark Sisson – “Lift, Move, Sprint”.
62 year old Mark Sisson, pictured at the top of this article, probably possesses the finest set of six-pack abs you’ve ever seen on any guy, much less a guy his age. So what’s his secret?
First, rather then engaging in long, slow, “chronic cardio” exercise, he instead does short, fast all-out sprint workouts at least once a week, all year long. He doesn’t overdo these, and recommends performing such workouts (e.g. ultimate Frisbee, treadmill high intensity intervals, hard bicycling up hills, etc.) just once every 7-10 days. Second, he does brief, intense sessions of full body, heavy weightlifting 1-3 times each week, for just 7-30 minutes. Finally, he moves frequently at a slow pace, using things like treadmill workstations and low-level physical activity all day long, and avoids any long, unbroken periods of sedentary time.
Lift, move, sprint. Pretty simple concept, eh? You can learn more about Mark’s philosophies and daily habits in this podcast interview I recently conducted with him.
Tip From Fit Old Guy #4: Don Wildman – “Do Epic Things”
In the episode, “What Is The Hardest Workout In The World”, I discuss an Esquire magazine article called “The Hardest Workout in the World.” In it, the author outlined septuagenarian Don Wildman’s grueling, intense, multi-stage weight training workout, dubbed “The Circuit.”
The first time I went to the gym to do the “Hardest Workout in the World,” I thought it would be a piece of cake. After all, if a 75-year-old can do it, I should surely manage it, too! When I crawled out of the gym 3 hours later, I was thinking a bit differently and my body was feeling the effects of the challenge for the next several days.
After researching Don Wildman (now 80 years old) a bit more, I discovered that he not only does this same “epic” workout quite frequently, but he also goes mountain biking on difficult trails for miles every single day, along with stand-up paddle boarding, big-wave surfing and even helicopter snowboarding.
These may seem like epic, scary, daunting tasks, but Don still does them, and he’s certainly living life at a much more exciting level than 99% of his peers, and staying incredibly fit doing it. So what “epic” or “scary” event or workout can you add to your calendar this week, this month or this year?
Tip From Fit Old Woman #1: Olga Kotelko – “Stay Supple”
In the podcast episode “The Mystery of the 95 Year Old Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives”, I introduce Olga Kotelko, a senior track star who has since passed away, but at the time, held over twenty-three world records in track and field, seventeen in her current ninety to ninety-five category.
When I read the book about her life, entitled: What Makes Olga Run?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives“, one of the biggest take-ways for me was that Olga didn’t simply beat up her body every day without going out of her way to keep it recovered and “supple”. She instead woke up every night, grabbed an old, empty wine bottle beside her bed, and gave herself a full body, foam-roller style massage on all her fascia, muscles and joints. Whether you try to book a weekly or monthly massage, or whether you do routines such as the “metabolic mobility” routine I recently posted to YouTube (which I personally do twice per week to keep my own body supple), you’ll find that you can keep muscle soreness, cranky joints, poor movement and other body issues we accept as “normal” in seniors at bay.
And yes, you can do this type of deep tissue work even when you travel. In this article, I show you how I do it with a glass water bottle from Whole Foods and a lacrosse ball.
Summary & A Final Note About Why Bigger Muscles Aren’t Necessarily Better For Longevity
But lest you rush to the gym ready to do an Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque workout, I do have one final observation for you, and it’s this: bigger muscles aren’t necessarily always better.
Paul Jaminet at the Perfect Health Diet wrote an excellent article outlining why you simply cannot focus on a “bodybuilding” approach for muscle mass or a “super slow” routine for low-impact while neglecting actual power and rate of force production.
In other words, when it comes to muscle and anti-aging, fast wiry muscle beats out pure muscle mass. The healthiest muscles you’re going to find are those found in a wiry physique of modest size, but a physique capable of exerting a lot of force over a short period of time.
This is why, in my “Look Good Naked & Longevity” article, I mention that you can get strong and muscular doing Crossfit-esque workouts that require maximum deadlifts in two minutes or ungodly amounts of snatch reps or bodybuilding workouts that have you doing bicep curls until you’re bleeding out the eyeballs…
…but when it comes to maximizing longevity, that approach is unlikely to be sustainable. Remember, you want to be able to do maintain strength and muscle in an uninjured state when you’re 40, 60 and 80 years old. For this, especially if you’re just getting started or want the minimum effective dose of strength, I recommend giving yourself permission to perform simply two weight-bearing workouts per week:
1) A super-slow lifting protocol exactly as described by Doug McGuff in his book “Body By Science” – specifically 12-20 minutes of just a few choice multi-joint exercises with extremely slow, controlled lifting (30-60 seconds per rep) and relatively high weights;
- Super slow upper body push (e.g. overhead press)
- Super slow upper body pull (e.g. pull-up)
- Super slow lower body push (e.g. squat)
- Super slow lower body pull (e.g. deadlift)
2) A high intensity body weight circuit program exactly as described in this study, in which a pair of researchers designed a 7 minute workout to maintain strength and muscle in as little time as possible. Each exercise below is simply to be performed for 30 seconds with 10 seconds of rest in between exercises. Aside from the wall sits, you should perform these exercises as explosively as possible.
- Jumping jack (or burpees)
- Wall sits
- Pushups (or clap push-ups)
- Crunches (or knee-ups)
- Step-ups (or lunge jumps)
- Squats (or squat jumps)
- Running in place with high knees (or jump rope, or stair sprints)
- Lunges (or lunge jumps)
- Pushups with rotation
- Side planks
So in summary, you can get away with as little as two strength workouts per week – one with slow controlled heavy lifting and one with high intensity, explosive, light, body weight-esque movements.
If you want daily, step-by-step instructions for the exact muscle training, fat burning, cardiovascular and mobility protocols that have been proven by research to maximize every second you spend exercising, all conveniently spelled out for you each week, you can click here to download my entire plan for looking good naked and living a long time.
So that’s it! Strength training is crucial for maximizing the life of your mitochondria and telomeres. It doesn’t appear to “beat you up” excessively or shorten your life in the way that voluminous, intense aerobic exercise can. And as we’ve learned from the five fit old people above, you should eat real food, learn new things, lift-move-sprint, do epic things, and stay supple. Put those five tips together, and you’re likely to stay incredibly fit, even into your very, very old years, and you’re likely to live longer.
Do you have questions, comments or feedback about anti-aging and exercise? Leave your thoughts below and I’ll reply!
Also published on Medium.