The Effect of Diet and Exercise on Biological Aging: From Hype to Reality

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It is widely accepted that intensive practice of sport is beneficial for Longevity and capable of delaying biological ageing. And for people in optimal conditions (for example, completely healthy, middle-aged individuals without any pathologies who live in a clean and natural environment) this is most likely the case. But how many people live up to that idealistic scenario? In reality, the substantial majority of individuals seeking to extend their Health Longevity are older than 35 (and many beyond 50), living in dense metropolitan cities with high levels of pollution and often having various minor (and in some cases major) pathological conditions. Therefore the real impact of different types of intensive sport and exercise is highly variable and not very predictable. This issue is complicated even more when we consider traditional dogmas related to the so-called “Healthy Lifestyle” industry such as diets and supplements.

From a purely statistical and scientific point of view, there is not a sufficient volume of evidence to support a number of commonly-believed activities and behavioural interventions thought to affect biological ageing or extend lifespan, including intensive exercise and sport, organic food, diets (such as vegetarian and vegan diets), vitamins and supplements, among others. The main issue revolves around the fact that most large-scale studies that appear to demonstrate the positive effects of these practices are not conducted in a sufficiently precise or personalised manner, taking into account the high degree of biological variability among study participants, particularly those in later middle age, when the variability increases exponentially due to the “entropic” nature of biological ageing.

Fitness, diet, exercise, high-grade organic foods and other sectors within the so-called neo-wellness industry have become a kind of new religion, considered by large groups of people to be proven reality, but in practice built on hype and a serious lack of scientific verification. In reality, beginning from age 40, and especially for individuals aged 50 to 60, the practices and activities that on average prove beneficial for younger adults (30–40 years old) may actually have negative effects on general health and biological ageing, because the entire concept of “normal” or “average” health degrades from the later stages of middle age onwards. Biological ageing can be viewed as the variable disintegration of highly complex and interconnected biological systems, and the nature of ageing (and how it affects individual health) varies hugely from individual to individual. Indeed, perhaps only 1% of individuals in later middle age still fit into the category of “normal”, and the majority of people have certain issues with their immune systems, as well as the presence of different pathologies and conditions and highly variable microbiomes.

Moreover, even very simple and “obvious” recommendations such as “run and exercise regularly, drink lots of water and eat organic food” are not applicable to people in later middle age due to high levels of variability in their environmental conditions. For people living in modern cities and metropolitan areas, the air and sanitation systems may be so polluted that increased exercise and water intake may actually increase the number of contaminants they are absorbing in their bodies. Similarly, with respect to food, diet, vitamins and supplements, the things that people can purchase in their local grocery or health food stores are highly variable and often contain high levels of impurities. For example, foods that are labelled organic are often highly processed, and when someone buys meat at a standard grocery store, it is likely to be highly saturated with antibiotics and growth hormones as well as preservatives and other chemicals added to extend shelf-life.

Below we outline a number of common myths about the supposed benefits of some of the most popular fitness and neo-wellness fads.

Exercise and Intensive Sport Exercise: In later middle age, long-distance running and high-intensity sports can actually have significant negative effects, including joint damage; an up to sixteen-fold increase in the intake of pollutants; the generation of free radicals; and damage to the vascular system for people with existing cardiac or vascular conditions, especially when sport and exercises involving running are not performed with the correct techniques. 

High Water Intake:  While it is of course important to drink water, the water actually available to the majority of individuals is highly impure and contaminated and one of the main sources of systematic chemical toxification, especially in individuals who are in later middle-age or older. Sophisticated methods of water detoxification must be applied in order to gain the benefits of increased water intake (standard reverse osmosis is not enough for true water purification).

Organic Food: Foods that are labelled organic very often contain hidden impurities. While it would be wise generally to eat foods that are labelled as organic rather than highly processed foods, there is not enough regulation and validation over what constitutes “organic” to be reliably certain that it will have net-beneficial effects or that it is sufficiently organic and free of impurities to have an impact on health and biological aging.

Diets: It is also clear that, in the majority of cases, diets that seek to eliminate types of food that have been commonly ingested for most of human history have a net-negative effect for most individuals. Interestingly, there is also a good amount of evidence suggesting that specific positive and negative effects of diets are tied to how they affect the highly sensitive and variable microbiomes of individuals. Moreover, one of the most important considerations is the specific factors that affect the way that food is ingested. Individuals seeking to gain health benefits from their diet should follow the approach of food-as-medicine, and their decisions should be driven not by human opinion, but by tangible measurements of biomarkers integrated with modern bioinformatics and data-science techniques. These challenges, combined with the highly variable ways in which individuals react to specific nutrients, supplements and microelements based on age, gender, ethnicity, microbiome, current state of health and other factors, make any strong predictions nearly impossible.

However, even considering all the above, there are certainly ways in which these kinds of activities and practices (exercise, supplements, and specific dietary habits) can have an impact on biological ageing and healthspan (the period in which people are healthy and free from major age-related diseases), if they are combined with very specific approaches involving large-scale, highly precise and personalised studies (in which study participants are grouped into very targeted groups based on shared characteristics including age, gender, ethnicity, location of residence and presence of existing conditions) analysed via the co-ordination of data science and artificial intelligence (AI) rather than the personal assumptions and theories of wellness coaches and healthy lifestyle gurus.

The most effective way to do this would be to apply AI and data science to information collected from significant proportions of the general population via mHealth mobile applications and wearables which track (1) specific characteristics of users including age, sex, ethnicity, location and presence of existing conditions; (2) general state of biological health (and, ideally, their biological age as measured by various biomarkers of ageing and Longevity); and (3) the specific dietary, supplement-based, exercise-based and behavioural interventions that they pursue, and the effects of those interventions on their biological age and general state of health. Naturally, the only way to coordinate, integrate and analyse this very large amount of data would be to use AI and data science techniques.

An ideal platform to facilitate this type of large-scale study would be a full-scope health and Longevity marketplace with millions of users which gives access to a high volume of precisely targeted health-focused products and services, combined with periodic measurement of their effects on the users’ biological age and general state of health. One good example of such a platform may be Longevity Banking Card, which provides its cardholders and clients access to a specially adjusted retail Longevity Marketplace with access to a highly tailored full-scope marketplace of products and services designed to optimize health and Longevity, which will tend to include mHealth products aiming to track the effect of those products and services on their current state of health and Longevity (via periodic measurement of Biomarkers of Longevity).

In the ideal (but not so far-future) scenario, the precision and frequency of this cycle of intervention application, monitoring and adjusting would be applied in as close to real-time as possible, with AI-based systems applying micro-doses of interventions combined with immediate measurement of their effects on health and biological ageing, as well as frequent dosage adjustment in order to construct precise, optimised regimens of medical and non-medical interventions tuned to the specific characteristics of each individual, adapting them over time as those characteristics change. This approach to healthy living (featuring integration of AI and data-science-driven measurement of biomarkers with treatment and intervention adjustment and personalisation) is not futurism; there are projects and products falling within this approach that are either already on the market or expected to be launched within the next two years.

Conclusion: For the average person interested in living a longer, healthier and higher-quality life in their middle age (ages 35–60), until are conducted, our personal recommendations (pending the large-scale, highly precise and personalised studies necessary to confirm what works and what does not) would include drinking very pure water; choosing low-pollution environments to live in; consuming high-quality, verified organic foods; and conducting any specific behavioural interventions such as diets, physical exercise or sport, and supplements in a precise, targeted and personalised manner, adjusted to the individual’s age, gender, ethnicity, state of health, microbiome and presence of existing conditions. We would also recommend integrating and monitoring all of these health-optimisation activities through the application of AI, data-science, health-tracking wearables and other related technologies rather than the personal opinions of wellness industry professionals who cannot provide results tuned to the specifics of individual persons. Finally, the first principle that people should adopt in all these activities is the core principle observed by doctors themselves: first, do no harm. People seeking to optimise their health and Longevity should engage in those activities that have the lowest chances of harming their bodies and should favour the use of wellness, diet and exercise products, projects and techniques backed by AI and data science, tuned to the specifics of their own bodies via frequent testing, feedback and optimisation.