The benefits of exercising regularly have been touted for a long time now, but for the more mature in years, we might think that our chance at seeing a benefit from being physically active is long since past. The good news is, a new study says that’s not true: being physically active later on in life can provide real benefits.
The findings come from a British study published this week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Researchers from the University College London in the UK, tracked 3,500 men and women with an average age of about 64 and, using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, followed their self-reported activity levels and health over an eight year period.
The researchers were looking at whether relatively moderate to high physical activity leads to healthy aging, a term they defined as study participants surviving the length of the study period without developing any major chronic diseases, physical or mental handicaps, or developing serious depression.
While previous research has shown that exercise at mid-life (around 40-50) carries significant benefits to ensure healthy aging, this latest research found that even in the over 60s, incorporating exercise into our lives appears to offer advantages over no exercise at all.
The researchers found that of their sample, roughly a fifth fell into the healthy aging category. For those who at the start of the study engaged in moderate or vigorous exercise at least once a week, researchers found that they were up to four times more likely to fall into the healthy aging bracket than those who were inactive.
The association was even more pronounced in those who maintained their healthy activities throughout the life of the study, even after factoring in things like sex, marital status, wealth, and lifestyle factors like smoking and drinking.
Perhaps even more interesting, those who were inactive at the start of the study but then took up exercising during the study’s eight year life were found to be three times more likely to fall into the healthy aging category than those who remained inactive throughout.
Of course, this research doesn’t mean that you should bank on taking up exercise in later life and being healthier for longer. We already know that moderate exercise throughout a lifetime can help to stave off a range of age related diseases. What this research does point to, even though it is only an association, is that people who haven’t lived a particularly healthy life so far can make a real difference in their prospects of aging healthily even if they are starting relatively late in life. Also, the study stresses that we really must try to stay active as we get older in order to keep aging healthily.
Lead researcher Dr. Mark Hamer, of the University College London, is quoted as saying, “The take-home message really is to keep moving when you are elderly. It’s cliche, but it’s a case of use it or lose it. You do lose the benefits if you don’t remain active.”
While specifically exercising is one of way getting these associated benefits, the study actually tracked physical activity levels and not purely things like going to the gym or running. As such, the researchers note that gardening and walking are among the activities that were shown to provide healthy aging benefits.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that older adults need at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity (such as brisk walking) per week in order to remain healthy. In addition, the CDC also recommends older adults engage in some form of muscle strengthening activities that work the major muscle groups of the body on at least two days per week. These activities can include heavy gardening, lifting moderate weights or doing body weight exercises, using resistance bands, or doing some forms of yoga. More tips appear here.
Obviously, these guidelines should be clarified with your doctor who will be able to help you construct a physical activity program that is right for your specific needs.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.