Researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden say that midlife is not too late to start exercise to gain the benefit of longer life. The study gathered information from 2205 men starting at age 50, who filled out surveys about their leisure time physical activity. They were categorised as low, medium, or high-activity. They were surveyed again at age 60, 70, 77, and 82. In addition to physical activity, their blood pressure, cholesterol levels, smoking status, alcohol use and body mass index were recorded.
At the start, nearly 50% reported that they got at least 3 hours of intense activity per week, 36% reported medium activity, and 15% said they were sedentary. Overall, mortality rates were highest in the men that were sedentary, and lowest among the highly active. Interestingly, after 10 years, men who had increased their activity levels had mortality rates that were the same as men who had maintained high levels of activity during that time.
Dr. Karl Michalsson, the study's lead author and a senior lecturer in the Department of Surgical Sciences at Uppsala University, said the study reveals that "it's not too late for a man after the age of 50 years to invest in health and longevity by becoming more physically active."
After adjusting for other risk factors, the researchers concluded that men who maintained high levels of physical activity from age 50 on could live 2.3 years longer than sedentary men, and would live 1.1 years longer than men who reported medium levels of physical activity at age 50. However, it is important to note that after 5 years of follow-up, men who had increased their level of physical activity had higher mortality rates than men who had maintained high levels of activity. Still, their mortality rate was not higher than mortality in men who continued to be sedentary.
As yet, a similar study has not been conducted involving women, so whether women gain the same benefits from starting exercise in mid-life is not clear. Michallson notes, "I cannot see a biological reason why there should be gender differences in effect."
The benefits gained by physical activity, even among the late starters, is similar to that gained by quitting smoking. "Everyone knows that smoking is hazardous for health and increases mortality risk, but it is not generally known that low physical activity has a similar impact on mortality risk as smoking," said Michalsson.
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