Usually, when we think about using exercise to fight aging, we focus on how exercise strengthens our muscle tissue and helps reduce body fat.
But, along with helping to trim your waistline, researchers have now found that exercise not only helps eliminate fat but changes it in a way that helps slow the aging process.
So, let’s take a closer look at how you can use those fat upgrades to upgrade how you feel every day no matter how old you are.
Fat has a bad reputation. Over the last couple of decades researchers have realized that fat tissue plays an important role in the development of disease. For instance, obesity is linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, joint deterioration, and arthritis as well as some cancers.
But fat, of course, also plays a positive role in human health. First and foremost, fat cells are depots for extra energy storage when you consume more calories than your body needs. And when fat cells are functioning properly, they send out messages that ensure that other cells in the body are sensitive to insulin and absorb and use blood sugar properly.1 They may also send out messages that spur the body to burn more calories.2
Fat Cells Decay With Age
As the function of fat tissue deteriorates with the passing years – especially if you’re a couch potato – you’re more vulnerable to gaining weight and falling victim to a wide range of diseases.
Consequently, studies of what’s happening in aging fat cells demonstrates that if you can delay that functional decay, you can lower your risk for disease, frailty, and disability as you enter your senior years.
“Fat is an organ that interacts with other organs and can optimize metabolic function. Among other things, fat tissue releases substances that affect muscle and brain metabolism when we feel hungry and much more,” explains Danish researcher Anders Gudiksen PhD. “So, it’s important that fat tissue works the way it should.”
According to research by Dr. Gudiksen and his colleagues, the secret to this kind of better fat functionality is exercise.3
Exercise Keeps Fat Cells Young
Their studies at the University of Copenhagen have focused on fat cells’ mitochondria, the little organelles that provide the cells with energy. When the mitochondrial energy generation process goes smoothly, fat cells can function at the top of their game. When the mitochondria falter, which often happens as we age, the cells can malfunction.
That malfunction can occur when fat cells are saturated with the waste products thrown off by mitochondria during energy creation. The Danish scientists found that if you don’t get much physical activity, the cells can’t effectively eliminate those compounds, which are known as reactive oxygen species (ROS).
Furthermore, the Danish researchers warn that this type of excessive buildup of ROS is linked to cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. And the risk for those conditions climbs as you age.
But if you get a fair amount of physical activity, the cells can more easily detoxify and dispose of ROS.
“The group of older people (in our study) who trained most form less ROS and maintain functionality to eliminate it. Indeed, their mitochondria are better at managing waste produced in fat cells, which results in less damage,” says Dr. Gudiksen. “Therefore, exercise has a large effect on maintaining the health of fat tissue, and thereby probably keeping certain diseases at bay as well.”
He also points out that you don’t need to do enormous amounts of exercise to improve your fat cell functionality. The key is to avoid doing no exercise at all. Even a good round of housework helps.4
Reduce the Fat Around Your Heart
Another study in Denmark demonstrates that we each have fat deposits around the heart that are linked to heart problems if they grow too large. In this case, the investigation indicates, resistance training (weight-lifting) shrinks this fat and lowers the risk for cardiovascular issues. But interestingly, the study did not find that aerobic exercises – like walking, running, or biking – had any effect in reducing this particular type of fat.5
So how much exercise do you need to do?
As I’ve often noted in other articles, and Dr. Gudiksen confirms, inserting healthy exercise into your day doesn’t mean you have to work out like an Olympian or hike for miles and miles.
Taking relatively brief daily walks produces significant benefits. And if you decide to lift weights, you don’t have to heft heroic amounts. Anything you do is better than just sitting around the house.
Heed what Dr. Gudiksen says – “Our results show that you can actually train your fat tissue to a very high degree – but that you needn’t cycle 200 km a week to achieve a positive effect. What you shouldn’t do, is do nothing at all.”