Exercise offers benefits even if begun later in life, study finds

The results of a study by researchers in London and Montreal may find you considering the importance of exercise among the activities you offer. Even those who start exercising later in life see significant health benefits from their efforts, they found.

In fact, those who participated in sustained regular physical activity for four years were seven times more likely to age healthfully—having no major disease or disability and maintaining good mental health, cognitive abilities and the ability to preserve social connections and activity participation—compared with those who were consistently inactive, according to the study results, published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

"This study supports public health initiatives designed to engage older adults in physical activity, even those who are of advanced age," the authors say.

Mark Hamer, PhD, of University College London; Kim L. Lavoie, PhD, of the University of Quebec at Montreal; and Simon L. Bacon, PhD, of Concordia University in Montreal, tracked the health of almost 3,500 people, whose average age was 64, for more than eight years. Participants described the frequency and intensity of regular physical activity they performed in 2002‒2003 and then every subsequent two years until 2010‒2011. The seniors’ responses were categorized as:

  • Inactive (no moderate or vigorous activity on a weekly basis);
  • Moderately active (at least once a week); and
  • Vigorously active (at least once a week).

At the two yearly monitoring sessions, the scientists noted any changes in frequency and intensity: always inactive, became inactive, became active or always active. They used medical records to confirm serious health issues such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, emphysema and Alzheimer's disease.

The researchers used a battery of validated tests to assess cognitive abilities and mental health, and they measured disability according to participants' responses to questions about the ease with which they were able to perform routine activities of daily living and an objective test of walking speed.

Nearly 10 percent of the sample became active, and 70 percent remained active. The rest remained inactive or became inactive.

At the end of the monitoring period, almost 40 percent of study participants had developed a long-term condition, almost 20 percent were depressed, one-third had some level of disability and 20 percent were cognitively impaired. Twenty percent of the seniors were defined as healthy agers, however, and a direct link existed between the likelihood of healthful aging and the amount of exercise performed: those who had regularly undertaken moderate or vigorous physical activity at least once a week were three to four times more likely to have aged healthfully than those who had remained inactive, after considering other factors.

Seniors who became physically active were more than three times as likely to have aged healthfully compared with those who did nothing, and those who sustained regular physical activity over the entire study period were seven times more likely to have aged healthfully than those who had consistently remained inactive.

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Topics: Activities , Clinical , Rehabilitation