Walk into any gym today and you’ll find a wide array of people, all of whom have their own reasons for being there. From vanity to stress-relief, achieving personal goals or gaining a competitive edge, people choose to exercise due to a whole host of different motivators. And many times, people believe that no matter what the motivation or type of exercise being performed, working out is maximizing his or her health – but is this true?
In an article for the December issue of Men’s Health, fitness enthusiast Michael Easter set out to find out just how influential exercise is on longevity and quality of life. His study centered around the idea of “fitness age”; that is, the idea that the body itself can have a different age than its chronological counterpart. This is due to the fact that different stressors and influences on various organs can affect their health, or lack thereof. Calculating fitness age can be done in a number of ways. The first that Easter delved into was VO2 max, a test of cardiovascular endurance. Essentially a treadmill test performed while wearing a mask, VO2 max tests the body’s ability to take in and utilize oxygen during exercise. The highest performers in this category are typically long-distance runners and cyclists, so, does this mean that they are the most “fit”? It depends on who you ask. According to the American Heart Association, VO2 max is the single best predictor of current and future health. Other researchers, however, disagree.
Next, Easter began to look at overall muscle composition as a component of fitness age. The benefits of healthy muscles are well-established and range from strength to blood-sugar control to inflammation mediation. Therefore, it is easy to draw a link from muscle composition to optimal health. At a California State University fitness center, Easter performed a series of tests including push-ups and jump roping that estimated the number and type of muscle fibers throughout his body, as well as his balance and coordination. Research shows that having a higher number of so-called “fast-twitch” muscle fibers that allow for quick, explosive movements is related to higher muscle quality as one ages. These muscle fibers allow for better coordination and thus allow for fewer falls and easier recovery from injury. Therefore, strength training and muscle conditioning play an essential role in maintaining health.
To round out his exploration of fitness age, Easter consulted one last expert: Kelly Starrett, a physical therapist who specializes in joint mobility. Starrett explained that while many go after endurance and strength capacity, movement is just as important. In fact, research has found that many Americans move through only a few body positions throughout their day (sitting to standing, standing to sitting, etc), leading to an overall loss of joint mobility. Ultimately, this leads to arthritis and various other bone and joint ailments that decrease not only fitness, but also overall quality of life. By participating in activities like hiking and yoga, people can enhance their flexibility and movement capacity and keep their joints “young”.
The ultimate conclusion of Easter’s study was this: while all exercise is beneficial in its own way, the best way to optimize health and decrease fitness age is a combination of various different exercises. Combining cardio with weight-training as well as movement exercises helps to keep the body young and increases overall longevity. Popular workouts like HIIT and pilates work to combine these different areas of training and are a great alternative to cardio or weight-lifting alone. So, the next time you hit the gym, be sure to cover all of your bases!