The Best Exercise for Healthy Aging

As you probably know, exercise is great for your health. In fact, exercise has almost endless benefits, many of which are a result of preventing aging in our cells. As we age, our cells slow down—a combination of less regeneration (new cells being formed) and weaker mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell). Evidence shows that exercise can prevent some of this, but a team of researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, recently found that certain types of exercise do so better than others.

The Latest Evidence
Researchers recruited young (aged 18-30) and older (65-80) volunteers, and then had people from each group perform either resistance (strength) exercises, high-intensity interval training, or combined endurance and light resistance training for 12 weeks. The strength training consisted of four days per week of either lower or upper body exercises, while interval trainers cycled three times per week with four sets of four-minute intervals, and the combined training group cycled five days a week for 30 minutes and lifted four days per week but with fewer repetitions than the strength training group.

At the end of the study, the team found that people doing high-intensity interval training burned the most energy, whereas those who did exclusively resistance training had the greatest gain in muscle mass. Interestingly, the older subjects who performed combined endurance and resistance training actually had the same gain in VO2 max (a good measure of aerobic fitness) as the interval training group. These same groups also had increased insulin sensitivity, so they were better at metabolizing blood sugar, which reduces the risk for diabetes. The researchers also found that most of these observations were linked with changes in genes (how much the genes are activated, actually) that control mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell.

So, Cardio or Weights?
Well, this new study points towards interval training as the best way to exercise (greater calorie burn and just as much VO2 max improvement with three days of exercise vs. four or five). But not everyone can or wants to do high-intensity intervals. The good news is that lots of other research shows that all you have to do is walk—at least for some of the most tangible exercise benefits. Countless studies have found that walking can decrease weight, waist size, and blood pressure while increasing productivity.

(Feature photo courtesy of 

Isaac Everitt

Isaac Everitt is an intern with the Healthy Aging Project, and a student in the Integrative Physiology Department at the University of Colorado Boulder.