Reduce Your Biological Age

Live hard and don't die young.

Live hard and don't die young.

Have you ever questioned your sanity after a particularly gruelling workout?  Have you ever looked around the gym or studio and thought “Why oh why do I put myself through this?”  Do you ever question the benefits, wondering if life as a couch potato is more your thing?  Yes I think we all have!

I recently did a mini survey in my gym, asking why people exercise.  As expected there were many varied responses given as the initial primary motivator, as the main reason these people give their valuable time over to exercise.  But the questions I asked didn’t stop there.

As you would guess, the primary reasons people exercise were to look good or to perform better, but most also cited their health as one of the secondary reasons for them being health club members.  Predictably the older the member, the more important the health issue was.

We all know that as we get older our ability to perform as we did in our youth diminishes.  As this problem becomes more acute the impact on our lifestyles increases until we can no longer perform our day-to-day tasks.  We may not be able to stop the clock from ticking, but we can make sure we are better equipped to have fun while it ticks.

Lifestyle Impact

Accelerated ageing is a fact of modern life.  We eat more and eat more unhealthily.  We are less active in our work and more sedate in our recreation than at any other time in history.  The way much of our food is processed and cooked is a catalyst for illness and we have known this for some time.

Many diseases and illnesses are more prevalent in modern society than they have ever been despite fantastic advances in science and medicine.  Chronic conditions such as arthritis, cancer, diabetes and heart disease can all be manifestations of accelerated ageing.  The reduction in physical ability and functional fitness of our older generations is something many of us wish to avoid.

Luckily there are steps we can take to slow down this process so that our health-span matches our life span more closely.  There are things that we can identify, measure and work on that will improve our vitality and reduce our biological age.

The Eleven Biomarkers of Ageing

Thanks to initial work done by William Evans, Ph.D. and Irwin H. Rosenberg, M.D. at Tufts University Human Nutrition Research Centre on Ageing, a number of key biomarkers of ageing have been identified.  By monitoring these influential factors we can work towards shifting our metabolism away from catabolism and towards anabolism.

The dictionary definition of anabolism is ‘constructive metabolism in which simple molecules synthesise into more complex ones’, with catabolism saying the opposite.  More simply put, anabolism pertains to regeneration, re-growth, and repair whilst catabolism is degeneration and breakdown.

It is easy to see then how by looking after ourselves we can slow down the catabolic degeneration we know as ageing.  By considering these eleven biomarkers we can do just that, giving our later years a rosier outlook.

1. Body Cell Mass (Particularly Muscle Mass)

We typically lose an average of 3kg of lean mass each decade of our adulthood, with this rate increasing notably after the age of 45.

As the saying goes, if you don’t use it…you lose it!  This is particularly true of your muscles.

We can of course choose not to allow this to happen and avoid the muscular atrophy which poor diet and sedentary lifestyles unavoidably bring.  Remember the statistics are true of the population average and by exercising we have chosen not to be typically average.

We know of course that resistance training (usually with weights in a gym environment) coupled with good nutrition can increase our lean mass.  Resistance training has been shown to reverse muscular atrophy in people of all ages therefore reversing the negative results.  It is never too late it seems!

So significant is body cell mass that its loss is a catalyst for a number of other age related degenerations including:

Decreased blood sugar tolerance.
Declining metabolism.
Increase in body fat.
Decreased aerobic capacity.
Decreased bone mineral density.

(These conditions will be discussed further later in this article.)

2. Strength

The average population loses around 20% of its motor units between the ages of 30 and 70.

This of course goes hand in hand with increasing our body cell mass.  It is usually the case that the more lean mass we have the stronger we are, although this is not a hard and fast rule.

Our brain sends messages to our muscles through motor nerves, which are part of our central nervous system.  Sets of motor nerves and the muscle fibres they supply are called ‘motor units’

We know that resistance training can improve muscle cell size and strength.  The encouraging news however is that studies have shown this to be true for people right through into their nineties.  Older people can expect similar improvements in strength and cell size as younger people doing the same amount of exercise.  It seems once again that it is never too late!

3. Phase Angle

Women generally have a lower phase angle reading than men due to their typically lower muscle mass.

The phase angle is a measure of cellular health and the total amount of metabolically active tissue; in other words muscle!  Phase angle is measured using bio-impedance electrical analysis, which measures resistance and reactance.  A clip is placed on the finger and the toe and a small current is passed between the two. (You can’t feel it by the way!)  This gives us our reading.

Again this reading will decline with age if care is not taken to reverse the trend.  Resistance training, quality protein and essential fatty acids are important in improving our phase angle measurement.  The benefits of resistance training then are undeniable it seems!

4. Body Fat Percentage

At the age of 65, the average person has a body fat percentage that is twice that of when they were young.

Whereas the first three biomarkers decrease with age this is not true of body-fat as we know!  As we get older we get fatter, however, because we also tend to lose muscle our actual weight may not increase.

Although the ladies were worse off in the lean mass stakes, when it comes to body fat they have the upper hand.  Women typically store body fat on the hips and bottom whereas men store it around the abdomen.  Because the abdomen is home for our internal organs this is bad news for the boys as storing body fat here can be a factor in our susceptibility to heart disease.

While we are on the subject of body fat, did you know that resistance training can also help to reduce body fat percentage?  Muscle as an organ in the body uses energy to survive.  The more muscle you have, the more calories you use just to keep it alive.  Muscle is a large part of our body’s metabolic load; raise your muscle, raise your metabolism, burn more fat!

5. Fluid Levels

External environmental pollutants are also an influence on extra-cellular fluid levels, although these are more difficult to control

We know that our bodies are made primarily of water and that a loss of fluid can impair our performance.  But it is not just a matter of drinking more.  It is in particular the potassium rich fluid found within cells that gives us the sensitive indicator of our cellular function.

About 60% of our total body fluids are made up of this potassium rich intra-cellular fluid with the other 40% being sodium rich extra-cellular fluid.  It is the increase in this extra-cellular fluid that is associated with the build up various toxic substances.
We can work things in our favour, increasing intra-cellular fluid levels by looking at our diet, aerobic and resistance training and embarking on an effective detoxification programme.  By simply reducing the amount of dietary pollutants (E numbers, additives, colours, added sugars and salts and saturated fats etc) we can influence the amount of extra-cellular fluid in our body.

6. Aerobic Efficiency

By 65 our ability to utilise oxygen has decreased by 30 – 40%…. although this can be avoided by aerobic conditioning.

Once again, in this department our typical member of the population has a tough time too.  Men hit the peak of their aerobic efficiency at around 20 years of age and women at around 30.

Oxygen utilisation is measured by assessing the amount of oxygen we can use over a set period of time.  This is known as VO² max.  Predictably this can be improved by aerobic exercise; however it is not simply increased heart function that does the trick.  The significant changes in VO² max are primarily due to adaptations in how your muscles work.

Contrary to popular belief you do not need to run until you fall in a heap.  Magnus Bowden, Gym Development Manager with Cannons Health Clubs says “Those new to exercise or those returning after a long break should not and indeed need not thrash themselves.  Once a week for 20 minutes at a moderate level is great to start the ball rolling.  60% of your maximum heart rate (which you can calculate by subtracting your age from 220) is a good estimate of what would be moderate.  If you go at this intensity then 20 minutes should be OK, if it feels difficult or uncomfortable then you are probably working too hard!  Increase the frequency before you increase the intensity.  Aim to hit three or four times a week for 20 – 30 minutes before you increase the intensity at all.”

7. Blood Sugar Tolerance

Adult onset diabetes is on the increase.  The changes in activity levels and diet we endure as part of our modern lifestyle has paved the way for most of us to experience an increase in blood sugar levels.  It is easy to test and monitor blood sugar and there is plenty we can do to right the wrongs we may unearth.

Once again, exercise, along with good nutrition (and sometimes supplementation) can halt the accelerated ageing that accompanies increased blood sugar.  By following the right nutritional advice we can make the changes that balance the influential regulating hormones.

Nutritionist Deborah McGovern says, “It may be stating the obvious but caffeine, alcohol and refined sugars increase our susceptibility to this condition.  We all know we should be going for complex carbohydrates like rice and legumes coupled with some quality proteins and water rich foods like fruit and veg.”

8. Cholesterol

Firstly, let’s make sure we have the facts on cholesterol.  The word has become an all-encompassing term for increased risk of heart disease, furry arteries and the result of too much animal fat.  While this is half true we need to better understand the other side of the coin.

Cholesterol in general is a necessary part of our bodies’ chemistry.  It plays a part in sex hormone metabolism for one thing, being manufactured in our liver when necessary.  The fatty substance that is cholesterol attaches to proteins and circulates in our bloodstream as ‘lipoproteins’.  Some of these cholesterol bound lipoproteins have been found to protect us from heart disease and are known as high-density lipoproteins. (HDL’s) The other lipoproteins, low density lipoproteins (LDL’s) and very low density lipoproteins (VLDL’s) are the ones associated with circulatory problems and heart disease.

As the LDL’s and VLDL’s build up over age we become susceptible heart disease as the artery walls fur up and restrict blood flow.  The key to reducing LDL’s (the bad stuff) and increasing HDL’s (the good stuff) is exercise, dietary management and sometimes supplementation.  More specifically, by changing our diet we can lower LDL’s but to raise HDL’s we must lower our body fat percentage and also exercise.

Once again there are simple tests that can be done to work out our individual cholesterol status and appropriate course of action.  Dr John Reynolds of Citisport Clinic says “Surprisingly, for some people that action may include actually raising their intake of ‘healthy’ fats and oils!  It is important to seek individual assessment and individual recommendations to ascertain our nutritional needs.”

9. Blood Pressure

There are cultures and societies around the world that do not develop high blood pressure as they age.

An ideal blood pressure reading is around 130/80.  The first figure is systolic pressure, or the amount of pressure on our arteries at the highest point when the heart contracts.  The second figure is diastolic pressure, or the pressure in our arteries between heart beats, when the heart is at rest.

Modern, developed societies around the globe are reporting increased blood pressure readings in its ageing population due to lifestyle and dietary habits.  This inherent high blood pressure (or hypertension) of can give rise to heart attacks and strokes and there are seldom any warning signs.

But low blood pressure is not a good thing either, giving rise to symptoms similar to that of low blood sugar levels.  This can manifest itself in episodes of weakness and dizziness.

Although some of us are genetically predisposed to chronic hypertension, it has been shown that proper exercise and nutrition can restore normal healthy pressure in many cases.

10. Homocysteine

Elevated homocysteine levels are 40 times more predictive of heart disease than cholesterol levels.

Homocysteine is derived from methionine, an amino acid metabolised from dietary protein.  Although homocysteine is formed by all of us whether or not we are healthy, it is when levels in the blood become elevated that problems can occur.

Evidence suggests that even moderately raised levels can significantly increase susceptibility to cardiovascular disease, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis and certain forms of cancer.  Research shows that 30% of those with either coronary or peripheral artery disease have elevated levels of homocysteine.

Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12 and most importantly folic acid help to convert homocysteine into harmless compounds and these nutrients should be considered in any optimal diet.  If our dietary choices mean we could have low levels of these nutrients, or if there is a family history of any of the above conditions then it may be worth having homocysteine levels checked.  All it takes is a simple blood test.

11. Bone Mineral Density

Two weeks bed-rest can incur as much bone density loss as one year of ageing

The later stages of poor bone mineral density is called osteoporosis and contrary to popular belief it affects men as well as women.  Loss of bone density can cause fractures, disability and can lead to life threatening complications.

Studies have shown a decline in bone mineral density of 1% per year after peak mineral density is reached. (We usually peak at age 28-35)  After female menopause density loss increases to 3% per year and in some women this can be up to as much as 15% per year

Traditionally, bone density testing is done at hospitals using expensive DEXA (Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry) machines.  Although this testing method is very thorough, it is unusual for a GP to refer a patient for a test because of the expense. However, there are private clinics where bone density can be tested using ultrasonic equipment or be testing our urine in search of the by-products of bone breakdown.

Once again, we can avoid and reverse bone density loss with exercise, good nutrition and supplementation with particular attention to calcium and other bone building nutrients.


The fact that you are reading this magazine means that you have an interest in health and fitness.  You probably train one way or another and have at least more consideration about your nutrition than most of the population.  As a result you are likely to enjoy the benefits of this commitment into your old age.

But let’s get real for a while shall we.  For most people our commitment to exercise and nutrition is somewhat erratic.  Furthermore our primary focus is not generally on issues such as homocysteine levels or blood sugar tolerance.

We can of course leave the fitness levels of our twilight years to chance and if we have dedicated the time we can most likely enjoy a more healthy old age.  However, by specifically measuring and working on these eleven biomarkers of ageing we can get one step closer to that fountain of eternal youth.  See you at the Veteran Olympics!

Literature Cited: 11 Biomarkers of ageing. (Citisport Clinic), Tufts University
Thanks to Dr John Reynolds and Deborah Mc Govern of Citisport and Magnus Bowden of Cannons Health Clubs.


~ by Tony's Desk on February 19, 2009.

One Response to “Reduce Your Biological Age”

  1. A good articles is the best.


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