I have a riddle for you. Our most senior aged member, and one of my favorite people, turned 99 this week, but still she is not the oldest. Let me explain. Her chronological age is 99, but if you know her, you know her fitness age, also known as functional age, is considerably less.

The term “fitness age” was coined by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Researchers developed the fitness-age calculator which determines your fitness age based on how physically fit you are, rather than how many years you’ve been around. The fitness-age calculator uses a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness along with other measurements including age, Body Mass Index (BMI), resting heart rate, waist circumference and questions related to the individual’s exercise habits. According to the study’s authors, the results suggest that fitness age may predict a person’s risk of early death better than some traditional risk factors like being overweight, having high cholesterol levels or blood pressure, and smoking.

The study suggests that a person’s so-called fitness age is a better predictor of longevity than chronological age. The good news is that unlike your actual age, your fitness age can decrease. Thankfully, fitness age can be altered simply by just exercising. My birthday girl mentioned also attributes her good health to a little red wine and says most importantly, the Power from above is responsible as she points toward the sky.

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To determine cardiorespiratory fitness, researchers measured VO2max, which is a measure of your body’s ability to take in and utilize oxygen. It also can be used to compare your fitness with that of other people of the same age, providing you, in the process, with a personal fitness age. If your VO2max is below average for your age group, then your fitness age is older than your actual age. But if you compare well, you have a younger fitness age. That means a 50-year-old could have a fitness age between 30 and 75, depending on his VO2max. So, conceivably I can turn back my clock to the year 1991 if I significantly improve my VO2max. Sign me up!

Active older people resemble much younger people physiologically, according to a new study on the effects of exercise on aging. The findings suggest that many of our expectations about the inevitability of physical decline with advancing years may be incorrect and that how we age is, to a large degree, up to us. This is particularly true in terms of inactivity. Older people tend to be quite sedentary, and being sedentary affects health, making it difficult to separate the effects of not moving from those of getting older. Regular physical activity can help slow, and even reverse, the effects of aging.

A 2008 London-based study confirmed the beneficial impact of exercise at the cellular level. The study observed that telomeres (regions of repetitive DNA at the end of a chromosome) in white blood cells erode and shorten during the aging process. Thus, their length and quality are biological indicators of human aging, sort of an internal lifeline. Researchers compared the length and quality of the telomeres in 1,200 sets of twins; within each set, one twin exercised regularly and the other was sedentary.

Researchers found that the longer, healthier telomeres of the active twin indicated a younger biological age, sometimes by as much as nine years, when compared to the biological age indicated by the shorter, degraded telomeres of the sedentary twin. So, the elusive fountain of youth may turn out to be exercise and a foundation for youth.

Strength training is also important as we age. After age 30, if we’re inactive, we lose 1 to 2 percent of our muscle each year as we age. Regular strength training preserves that muscle, which is essential whether you participate in recreational sports or simply perform activities of daily living. Resistance training also boosts bone strength and helps prevent osteoporosis. With strong, flexible muscles and a sturdy spine you’ll be able to carry yourself like a 20-year-old. Shedding extra pounds relieves pressure on joints, prevents arthritis, eases the workload on your heart, and makes every physical activity easier and more comfortable.

Age can truly become, for you, just a number, defined by you, and not just how many candles are on your birthday cake. In closing, let me wish our birthday girl, Simone Johnson a very happy birthday. You are a true inspiration to us all!

Perry Buchanan, owner of PT Gym, is certified as an exercise physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine, and fitness nutrition specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Email him at perry@ptgym.com. Follow @ptgym on Twitter.

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