THE BLOG
11/12/2014 10:18 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2015

How Old Are You, Really?

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Many people would agree that we benefit from the increased experience that getting older brings. However, with each passing year, the aging of the body creates its own difficulties in everyday life. There are the inevitable aches, strains, and pains of our aging bones, joints, and muscles not to mention changes in appearance that make it more difficult to feel accepted in a youth-oriented society.

What if you didn't have to lose your physical prowess and health as you got older? If you could slow down the biological time bomb counting down within your body, imagine how much better you would feel.

As it turns out, the way you feel may not be as dependent on your calendar age as you might think. In a 24-year follow-up study of 37,000 Norwegian adults, Bjarne M. Nes and colleagues used a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness based people's answers to a series of questions, including their age, Body Mass Index (BMI), resting heart rate, and answers to these three questions:

  1. How often do you exercise? (5-point scale from never to almost every day)
  2. How hard do you usually push yourself? (3-point scale from not at all to push yourself to exhaustion)
  3. How long do you exercise? (4-point scale from less than 15 to 60 minutes or more)

The cardiorespiratory fitness measure was particularly useful in predicting death from cardiovascular disease among people less than 60 years old. People in good cardiorespiratory fitness, using this scale, had a 22 percent decrease in cardiovascular disease death and 10 percent less for all causes of death.

What's more, using the study's results, you can actually calculate your own fitness age, signifying just how much lower your personal odds are from dying based on a very simple calculation and the honest answers to a few questions.

The study's findings show that if we think of age not as years since birth but years prior to death, it's clear that you can literally become "younger" (have more years left to live) by maintaining this level of fitness. The expression "add more life to your years rather than years to your life" couldn't be more appropriate.

Physical exercise has other benefits that can keep your brain "younger" as well. Dementia due to Alzheimer's disease is, at this point in time, not thought to be preventable. In contrast, vascular disease, which is related to cardiorespiratory fitness, can be preventable through exercise. There are also benefits of exercise to your mood, metabolism, and sexual health.

Of course, exercise can't prevent everything wrong from happening to you, and there in fact can be risks associated with exercise not properly conducted. You can exercise to the point of damaging your joints, you might become obsessed with it, and you might even suffer more pronounced tooth decay than you otherwise would. By the same token, leading a sedentary existence can make it even more difficult for you to exercise, starting a vicious downward cycle. You want to find the right balance between too much exercise (done wrong) and too little in which you don't give your body or mind the workout it needs.

Once you think of your age as a needle you can move down the scale, you can conceive of your own life in a new and more controllable light. Age can truly become, for you, "just a number," defined by you, and not just the calendar.

Reference:

Nes BM, Vatten LJ, Nauman J, Janszky I, Wisløff U. (2014) A simple nonexercise model of cardiorespiratory fitness predicts long-term mortality. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 46(6):1159-65. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000219.

For more details on the problems of age, time, and longevity, check out my Psychology Today blog, "Your Fitness Age is the One that Really Counts."