Exercise is one of the key ways to stave off chronic diseases and stay healthier in old age

In 1977 Lawrence Golding, now 81, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), started a no-frills, boot-camp-style exercise class for men, held weekdays at lunchtime in a building on campus.

Some of those men, aged 30 to 51 when the class began, stuck with the programme for more than 20 years. And, today they're reaping the benefits of that commitment.

Now greying and many of them grandfathers, they have cholesterol and triglyceride levels that are better than when they were younger, and their aerobic capacity, flexibility and strength have not shown expected age-related declines.

“My definition of ageing is when you can't do the things physically that you used to do when you were years younger,” says Golding, who led the exercise class until it was disbanded a couple of years ago. “People who exercise regularly continue doing the things they used to do when they were in their 20s.”

Along with a healthy diet, staying mentally active and socially engaged, exercise is emerging as one of the key ways of staving off chronic diseases and, in general, staying healthier in old age, experts say.

In fact, next to maintaining a healthy weight, exercise in men was found to be the most important factor in warding off heart failure according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Physical activity is just as important for women. A study of 27,000 women with an average age of 55 found that, over the course of 11 years, those who exercised were 40 per cent less likely to have a heart attack than women who were sedentary.

“The most important organ in an older person's body is their legs,” says Dr. Walter Bortz, a professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. “If your legs stay good, everything else takes care of itself. You don't fall down and break your hip. Your heart stays good.”

Bortz, who is 80 and has written several books on ageing and exercise, finished the Boston Marathon this year in about seven hours, 30 minutes — his 40th marathon in as many years. It's never too late for seniors to start exercising, he says.

So how much should middle-age people or seniors strive for? At least three 30-minute sessions of exercise a week, though more is better, Bortz says.

At UNLV, Golding led a 45-minute class. There was no boom box, no equipment — just Golding counting repetitions from the front of the room.

The men, all sedentary and most mildly overweight, quickly showed improvement. Within two to three years, participants, regardless of their age, on average performed better on tests of flexibility, strength and aerobics, says Golding.

And, as they sweated together, friendships developed. “These men were beating the ageing process, together.”