By Sid Kirchheimer WebMD Medical News
July 31, 2003 — You know that exercise is a great way to prevent or delay age-related diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. And perhaps you’ve heard that vitamin E supplements — with their powerful antioxidant properties — can also be helpful.
So what happens when both are used in combination?
They provide a better defense than either strategy alone against several ailments caused or worsened by age, according to a study in the July issue of Biological Research for Nursing.
Researchers tested both anti-aging methods on 59 men and women between ages 60 and 75 who were not regular exercisers. Half continued their sedentary ways while the other half started a 60-minute, twice-weekly exercise regimen. Those two groups were then divided, so half of the exercisers and sedentary folks received either an 800 IU vitamin E supplement or a placebo.
Taming Free Radicals
Whether they exercised or not, those taking vitamin E pills had the same reduction in harmful substances known as free radicals — unstable molecules that damage cells and are believed to contribute to the development of some 200 different diseases, many of them age-related. The levels of a blood marker that signals free-radical damage were cut in half.
But don’t shelve those athletic shoes just yet. Exercise provides its own protection — boosting antioxidant substances that combat these free radicals. It also reduces risk factors such as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes that worsen free-radical cell damage.
So while the group that exercised and took vitamin E didn’t fare any better than those who took just the pills as measured by blood levels of this tell-tale sign of free radical damage, the seniors who became active lost weight, reduced their blood sugar and blood pressure levels, and increased their exercise capacity. As expected, the sedentary folks didn’t.
“The conclusion is that a combination of moderate exercise and vitamin E is the most effective way to go,” lead researcher James Jessup, PhD, RN, of the University of Florida College of Nursing, tells WebMD. “The benefits of vitamin E and exercise are tangible and intangible.”
“Basically, vitamin E prevents free radicals from bumping into cell walls and destroying them,” says Jessup.
“The problem is, after about age 40 or 45, the body produces more free radicals and fewer natural antioxidants to fight them. You’d have to eat two heads of spinach a day to get enough vitamin E to be protective, so you really should take supplements — especially as you get older.”
Extra E Benefits
Other research indicates that vitamin E offers even more benefit to those who also exercise. According to one 1999 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, it improves lung function in those who work out when the air quality is poor.
And perhaps more importantly, an October 2001 study in Nutrition suggests that a daily vitamin E supplement prevents some of the free radical damage caused by physical activity — especially if it’s occasional or takes a greater toll on your body.
“Although it’s very beneficial, exercise does produce free radicals,” says Jennifer Sacheck, PhD, cell biologist at Harvard Medical School and a researcher on the protective properties of antioxidant nutrients who led the latter study. “And if there’s any damage to muscles, inflammation also produces free radicals.”
But taking vitamin E “blunts” this damage, she tells WebMD. “A little free radical damage, like that from exercise, isn’t bad because it stimulates a natural antioxidant enzyme. But if it skews over to be negative, a little extra vitamin E is helpful.”
And Sacheck emphasizes “a little extra.” Doses in the 800 to 1,000 IU ranges — used in Jessup’s and her study, as well as others showing protection from free radicals — may be no more effective than her recommendation of 200 to 400 IUs daily.
“Other studies suggest that taking 200 to 400 IUs daily is as good as taking 800 to 1,000 Ius … and it’s cheaper.”