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Inflammation, Exercise & Aging

by Sarah Cimperman, ND

Inflammation has been identified as a key factor in aging. While it’s true that chronic inflammation leads to disease and dysfunction, from Alzheimer’s to atherosclerosis, acute inflammation can have opposite effects. Not only is it normal and necessary for good health, it can actually reverse processes associated with aging. Examining the causes and effects of inflammation makes this complex process easier to understand.

Inflammation Basics

Inflammation is a form of self-defense against invading microorganisms that cause disease, and also a way for the body to heal itself. Inflammation occurs after tissue injury and in response to foreign cells such as viruses, bacteria and cancer cells. Whether you cut your finger, catch a cold or run a marathon, the mechanism is the same.

The inflammatory process is mediated by a variety of immune cells and dozens of chemical messengers called cytokines in the blood. These mediators increase blood flow to affected areas, supplying the white blood cells and nutrients needed to stop tissue damage, destroy foreign elements, remove waste materials, and rebuild tissues. Tissues grow back stronger, more efficient, and more able to withstand future forces.

Exercise and Inflammation

Despite all of the health benefits of exercise – disease prevention, improved immunity, stress reduction, and improvements in sleep, mood, coordination, flexibility, bone density and insulin regulation – it does cause tissue damage. But because tissue damage turns on inflammation, and inflammation promotes growth and renewal, it has a positive effect on the body.

For example, in response to regular exercise, muscles make more cells. And in each cell, there is an increase in the size and number of mitochondria, the components that provide energy and are often referred to the "powerhouses" of cells. Muscle cells become more efficient in their uptake and use of oxygen and fats from the blood. Exercise also increases the proportion of energy derived from fat and lowers lactic acid production, which makes muscle cells less susceptible to fatigue.

Inflammation and Aging

It can’t turn back the clock, but exercise can make us functionally younger because growth and renewal inhibits the deterioration and dysfunction associated with aging. As we age, tissues wear out and break down. But exercise can compensate and slow the process. It may cause inflammation acutely, but in the long term, it reduces inflammation.

Research studies have confirmed that exercise plays an important role in controlling inflammation as we get older. A 2004 study at Ball State University observed the effects of exercise on inflammatory markers in the blood of older adults, specifically a type of cytokines called interleukins. Participants included a dozen healthy men between the ages of sixty-five and seventy-five. Researchers found that in comparison to their sedentary counterparts, men who exercised frequently were found to have significantly lower levels of pro-inflammatory interleukin-6 and significantly higher levels of anti-inflammatory interleukin-10.

Another study examined at the effects of exercise over time. Researchers at the Intercollegiate College of Nursing at Washington State University studied twenty participants aged between sixty and ninety years. One group was sedentary while the other group of adults were engaged in physical activity for regular 30-minute intervals over a period of ten weeks. At the end of the study, the exercisers reported significant improvements in stress, mood and quality of life. They were also found to have significantly lower levels of pro-inflammatory interleukin-6. Even adults who had not been active previously benefited from regular exercise. It’s never too late.

Essential Inflammation

According to Chinese proverb, the journey is the reward. It’s true: individuals who stay active and engaged in life enjoy better health than their sedentary counterparts. Whether you like to play ball, ride your bike, or dance the night away, exercise makes the body stronger and more efficient. The inflammation of exercise is essential for good health.

References available upon request. Dr. Sarah Cimperman is a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine in private practice in New York City. For more information, call 646-234-2918 or visit www. drsarahcimperman.com.

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