Two studies in JAMA Network Open offer hope to people who start exercising later in life or who are unable to do moderate-intensity or vigorous exercise.
The first study suggests that if you are middle-aged and have been sedentary most of your life, it’s not too late to gain substantial health benefits by becoming physically active. Researchers analyzed data from more than 315,000 participants in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, who were ages 50 to 71 when they enrolled and filled out detailed questionnaires about their diet, health, and physical activity, past and present.
Over the next 14 years, those who had reported participating in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, starting in their teens or twenties, were about one-third less likely to die (notably from cardiovasculardisease but also cancer) than those who were consistently inactive over the decades.
But those who started to become physically active between the ages of 40 and 61 also had a one-third lower mortality rate. The researchers controlled for factors such as age, race, smoking, body weight, and diet.
Even light activity helps
Low-intensity physical activity, such as slow walking and light housework, may be enough to reduce the risk of heart attacks and coronary deaths among older women, according to the second study, which included about 5,800 women, ages 63 and older (average age 78) at the start. Participants initially wore a device that measured their physical activity for four to seven days, and were then followed for an average of 3½ years.
After controlling for many factors—including overall health, weight, physical function, and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity—the researchers found that women who did the most light activity (averaging six hours a day) were about one-third less likely to have a heart attack or die from coronary causes than those who did the least (averaging three hours a day). The more daily light activity they did, the greater the coronary benefit. Previous research has found similar benefits among older men.
As the authors noted, their findings support the latest Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which state that “for individuals who perform no or little moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, replacing sedentary behavior with light-intensity physical activity reduces the risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease incidence and mortality, and the incidence of type 2 diabetes” and suggest that all movement counts when it comes to cardiovascular health.
Bottom line: People of all ages can benefit from moving more and sitting less throughout the day.