Throughout history, exercising recreationally has been understood as a key to longevity. However, it was often hard to quantify the exact benefits of exercise in older adults.
New research gives hard numbers to the perks of frequent exercise -- more specifically, cycling. A team from the United Kingdom studied 125 long-distance cyclists who were considered 'seniors,' some of whom were in their 80s. The researchers discovered that these adults had immune systems rivaling the healthiest 20 years old.
Norman Lazarus, an 82-year-old professor from King's College London, both co-authored the study and took part in it.
"If exercise was a pill, everyone would be taking it," he told the BBC. "It has wide-ranging benefits for the body, the mind, for our muscles and our immune system."
Janet Lord, the director of the Institution of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham, echoed Lazarus's statements.
"The immune system declines by about 2-3% a year from our 20s, which is why older people are more susceptible to infections, conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and, potentially, cancer," Lord noted. "Because the cyclists have the immune system of a 20-year-old rather than a 70- or 80-year-old, it means they have added protection against all these issues."
In the United States alone, recent studies have shown that over 80 percent of American adults don't get the recommended amounts of exercise needed, and those statistics are shared with some other Western countries including the UK.
Other studies have linked sedentary lifestyles as the cause of over 5 million deaths globally – not as many people die due to smoking. And in nearly every study conducted, the group least likely to put themselves through physical activity were those older than 65.
Steve Harridge, who co-authored the study and serves as a professor of physiology at King's College London, added that human beings being caught in the back of desks are conditioned not to be active during working hours, after which, they don't believe it is possible to be active after work hours, a notion that is deteriorating global fitness.
"Being sedentary goes against evolution because humans are designed to be physically active," he said. "You don't need to be a competitive athlete to reap the benefits - or be an endurance cyclist - anything which gets you moving and a little bit out of puff will help."
More specifically, those little 'puffs' help boost T-cell production. T-cells help play an important role in cell-mediated immunity and the body's recovery against attacks on other cells throughout the immune system. The team theorized that the effects of exercise in advanced age led to the body maintaining itself, and that older, active adults could be a key to unlocking exactly how the body is meant to age.
The study was published in the journal Aging Cell, which also published another study that found cyclists didn't lose their muscle strength or mass over time, nor did they gain body fat. Both of those factors have long been associated with aging.