Being physically active in middle age helps people maintain higher physical function later in life

Being physically active in middle age helps people maintain higher physical function later in life, according to a newly published study.

“Participation in a physically active lifestyle appears to be critical to preserving high physical function in relatively fit, healthy, middle-aged men and women,” according to Dr. Melvyn Hillsdon of University College London and colleagues.

Previous studies have shown that a physically active lifestyle reduces the risk of low physical function among the elderly. Hillsdon and colleagues set out to demonstrate the value of physical activity earlier in life.

Described in the current issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, this study is part of the ongoing Whitehall II project, a study of thousands of London-based civil servants, tracking them forward in time.

The Whitehall II design gave researchers the opportunity to look at a younger, healthier group comprising 6,398 adults, age 39 to 63. A follow-up period of nearly nine years allowed researchers to associate present physical activity with future physical function.

Using results from questionnaires and medical screenings, researchers analyzed physical function, chronic disease history, fitness indicators, lifestyle habits, medical test results and work status.

Participants were classed as sufficiently active, insufficiently active or sedentary. Sufficiently active participants engaged in at least two and a half hours of moderate activity or one hour of vigorous activity a week.

At the end of the study, the sufficiently active “were more likely to report no limitations in physical function … compared to their sedentary counterparts,” Hillsdon reports.

Even those who started with chronic illness and poor physical function maintained better function with higher activity. Conversely, being free of chronic illness or disease did not counteract the long-term effects of being sedentary.

A study limitation was that measures of activity and function were self-reported. More objective measures would include walking speed and spirometry, an indicator of lung function.

International guidelines recommend that adults get 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least five days a week.

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