TUESDAY, May 11, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- In 1977, Jimmy Carter was president, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was in theaters and smoking was still permitted in most public buildings. That was the year Lawrence Golding, now 81, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 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 program for more than 20 years. And today they're reaping the benefits of that commitment.
Now graying 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 aging is when you can't do the things physically that you used to do when you were years younger," said Golding, who led the exercise class until it was disbanded a couple of years ago because of logistical issues with parking and finding a meeting space on campus. "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, or the loss of ability to pump blood that can lead to death, according to a study published in mid-2009 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Among men who exercised five or more times a week, 11 percent developed heart failure, compared with 14 percent who didn't exercise, the study found.
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 percent less likely to have a heart attack than women who were sedentary. The study was published in late 2009 in Circulation.
"The most important organ in an older person's body is their legs," said 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. You don't get frail. Your sex stays good, your brain stays good and you cost less money."
Bortz, who is 80 and has written several books on aging and exercise, finished the Boston Marathon on April 19 in about 7 hours 30 minutes -- his 40th marathon in as many years.
It's never too late for seniors to start exercising, he said.
"Even people in their 70s still have a tremendous capacity to improve their strength, flexibility and aerobic capacity," Bortz said.
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 said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends five sessions a week.
At UNLV, Golding led a 45-minute class weekdays from September to May. There was no boom box, no equipment -- just Golding counting repetitions from the front of the room. Experienced class members did three sets of 50 sit-ups and three sets of 20 push-ups, for example.
The men, all white, 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 than incoming freshman, Golding said.
Among the 20 who continued coming to class -- 3½ times a week for more than 20 years -- low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the bad type, dropped 27 percent after the first year and 60 percent over 20 years. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the good type, increased by 60 percent after the first year and continued to improve for the next 15 years, according to research published in 2009 in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport.
Total cholesterol (LDL, HDL and other lipid components) dropped nearly 18 percent after year one and 40 percent over 20 years, the study found. Triglyceride levels decreased every year, including 23 percent after the first year and 61 percent over 20 years.
The men also lost an average of 27 pounds, though the improvements in cholesterol profiles were independent of weight loss, according to the study.
And, as they sweated together, friendships developed, with the men ribbing one another if someone slacked off and didn't show up for awhile. "It became a positive addiction after awhile, and people were pretty upset when we ended the class," Golding said. "These men were beating the aging process."
The President's Council on Physical Fitness has more on fitness fundamentals.