(Avoid) A Long, Slow Death

icon head halo How much exercise do you need? Presumably that depends on your intention for the exercise and your ambition for success. For some of the people we write about, such as triathletes, their sport is their exercise. That is to say that triathlon consists of three activities which, were you not a triathlete, might well be at least some of your training activities. Other sports, say skiing or tennis, require physical conditioning on top of time spent doing or practising the sport itself in order to perform it well and to reduce the potential for injury of one kind or another. If doing the sport itself does not provide the physical capability to perform it, physical training is a requirement.


In both of these cases there is additionally a quality-of-life benefit and, given what our interest is at SGSC, that holds especially true at a later age. Through the combination of doing the sport, and training for it, there is the potential to increase what scientists call ‘healthspan’. Healthspan describes the amount of one’s life lived in good health, and is a notion often used within the study of healthy ageing. These days there is concern that although people are living longer, more of that time at later stages of life is spent in poor health. This is why so much of the commentary on the growing older population is in such negative terms.  


So if Silver Grey athletes, who are maximising their conditioning specifically for a sport, are benefiting from that conditioning in terms of maintaining quality-of-life in their later years, what about those people who are not engaged in a sport? How much exercise do they need, and how are they to find the motivation?


The answer to at least the first part of that question might be found to some extent in some research by scientists Norman Lazarus and Stephen Harridge, of Kings College, London, who put forward their Set Point Theory of Exercise and Ageing. Their studies of master athletes, and how the world best performances decline with age, led them to state that “from a gerontological perspective, master athletes have been proposed as being a biological model in which an understanding of the physiology of the healthy and inherent human ageing process can be gleaned” without the added effects of the sedentary lifestyle that many older people have. In other words, if you want to look at what ‘pure’ ageing might look like, without the negative effects of a bad lifestyle adding to the the deterioration, look at master athletes. (Master athletes are classed as athletes over thirty five or forty years of age, up to any age. As an extreme example, Charles Eugster [whom we interviewed] was ninety five when he set his 200m age-group world record)


Lazarus and Harridge propose that there is a level of exercise which, if maintained, will prevent the results of inactivity from amplifying the natural effects of ageing, which they describe as the “diminution of integrative physiological prowess that occurs solely as a result of ageing”. They call this level the Set Point of Exercise. Below this level of exercise, inactivity adds to physiological deterioration. Above the Set Point, while proposing that there are no additional health benefits, they do accept that exercise increases athletic achievement and physiological function.  


They make the correlation between one’s physical ability to perform a sport and one’s ability to function in daily life. Maintenance of physical functionality has daily life benefits as well as athletic ones, something we at SGSC endlessly bang on about.


So, if exercising at the Set Point has benefits, by not reaching that level of exercise “ageing interacts with the negative effects of inactivity” to lead to “extended morbidity”, i.e. a higher likelihood of early death. And the increased likelihood of early death, or rather the desire to avoid it, could be the answer to the second part of the question posed above - it could provide the motivation.


If asked to describe a perfect death you would certainly imagine it to be at a ripe old age, perhaps in your own bed and surrounded by loving family? (That last part is subject to a great deal of luck, of course!)


But what about the years leading up to this ideal version of one’s ending? How will they be? Will they be full of fulfilment, enabled by good health and a strong body strong enough to profit from time no longer spent working?  Perhaps strong enough to give back to society, as well as enjoying one’s own activities? Not to mention the mental health benefits!


Or will the last ten or fifteen years, in fact, be just the early part of that early death? A death which might take place over years? Because not all deaths take the same amount of time.


The end point of them all is the same, of course, but some are quick and some take longer. Death from lack of oxygen can take minutes, from lack of water can take days, and death from lack of food can take up to ten weeks or even longer. Each of these deaths can be described as having a starting point, when the lack of the particular essential ingredient first occurs. And during the course of each of them the process of physical degradation can be examined over the period it takes to reach the final moment.


However, encouragingly, each of these ways of dying can be stopped before reaching that end point. All that is needed is to resume consumption of oxygen, water or food and death is then delayed once again. And if this resumption has taken place before too much permanent damage has been done, all well and good and enjoyment of the life that has been interrupted can be resumed.


Incipient Death from Lack of Exercise (IDLE) will take much longer to be brought to a conclusion than the deaths discussed above. The deterioration will be slower and take longer to reach the end point, but IDLE does have similarities with them. IDLE could be said to have a starting point, which would be when you stop doing enough exercise. And as IDLE takes longer than the other deaths, the deterioration will take place over a longer period. The deterioration happening as a result of it will be chronic and measurable, and no doubt the longer that IDLE goes on, the greater the damage will be.


But what IDLE also has in common with the other deaths is that resumption of the critical missing element will prevent it from continuing. A small amount of exercise will slow IDLE by a small amount, more exercise will slow it more. The more you do, up to their Set Point, the more you’ll benefit. And in this way we come back to the question at the start, “How much exercise do we need?”. And the answer is “Any exercise is better than no exercise!”. As long as you have life, you’ll reap the benefits of exercise and training.


You won’t completely prevent that final outcome, though - it is the only certainty in life. (It used to be Death and Taxes, but taxes now seem to be optional if you’re rich enough!). But what you can do is prevent the start of your own personal decline from happening too early in your life, you can delay its beginning until as near its ending as possible.


Given that the end of life is something you can’t avoid, at least make the effort to try and prevent your ending being a long, slow one!


NB Incidentally, at this time we haven’t discovered the amount of exercise that Lazarus and Harridge recommend as being the set point. It will depend on the individual’s own physiognomy and/or genetics. The NHS recommend 150 minutes per week of moderate activity or 75 mins per week of vigorous activity.

We, of course, recommend more!



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