Taking up exercise later in life significantly decreases a person’s risk of early death, even if they have been inactive their whole life, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge.
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A study of almost 15,000 people (aged 40 to 79 years) who were followed for more than 20 years showed that those who exercised for two-and-a-half hours per week slashed their risk of dying in the next 13 years.
The effect applied irrespective of whether people had previously been inactive, how healthy their diet was or whether they had a history of a health condition such as high blood pressure, raised cholesterol or obesity.
Among those who had previously been inactive, the risk for early death fell by one-quarter, but the health benefits were greatest among those who had previously exercised and then increased their activity level over time. For those individuals, the risk of early death was reduced by 42%.
Study authors Soren Brage and colleagues say the findings show that it is never too late in life to start getting fit and that the results have important implications for both individuals and public health policy-makers.
How much exercise does the UK government recommend?
According to NHS recommendations, in order to stay healthy or to improve health, adults should try to be active on a daily basis and engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise such as brisk walking every week. Other examples of moderate-intensity activities include swimming, water aerobics, cycling, and even gardening or pushing a lawnmower.
However, Public Health England says more than one-third of English adults to do no adhere to the recommendations.
Assessing the impact of physical activity on risk for early death
For the current study, Brage and team followed 14,599 middle-aged and older men and women in the UK for eight years and assessed fluctuations in their activity levels. The participants were then tracked over the following 13 years to study the effect these fluctuations had on their health.
Participants were divided into three groups according to their physical activity level, as follows:
- Low: Those who did not meet the minimum physical activity level set by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
- Medium: Those who met the WHO guideline of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week
- High: Those who met the WHO guidelines for additional health benefits by performing 300 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week or the equivalent. The equivalent would be 75 minutes of vigorous activity (e.g. running) or 60 minutes of vigorous activity combined with 30 minutes of moderate activity.
During the study period, 3,148 people died, with 950 dying from cardiovascular disease and 1,091 dying from cancer.
Maintaining or increasing moderate physical activity may increase longevity
As reported in the British Medical Journal, participants who increased their activity level were significantly more likely to live longer, irrespective of how active they had previously been and other factors such as diet and previous health conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
People who maintained a moderate level of physical activity were 28% less likely to die, compared with individuals with a low physical activity level:
Twenty-eight percent is what makes public health researchers jump up and down in joy — that's quite a big effect. That's slashing your mortality risk by a quarter.”
Soren Brage, Lead Researcher
There were also health benefits for people who did more than maintain a moderate level of exercise and increased their activity level over time: "Even if they were completely inactive when they started, if they manage to increase their activity level a little bit they could reap benefits," Brage adds.
The authors say the findings offer hope to the millions of middle-aged people in Britain who do not exercise enough: “These results are encouraging, not least for middle-aged and older adults with existing cardiovascular disease and cancer, who can still gain substantial longevity benefits by becoming more active, lending further support to the broad public health benefits of physical activity.”
It is never too late to start boosting your longevity with exercise. It's like putting money in the bank. You invest in your future health and nothing is ever wasted but it's also never too late."
Soren Brage, Lead Researcher
The authors hope that as well as shifting the population towards meeting minimum exercise recommendations, public health efforts will focus on maintaining activity levels to help prevent declines in health during mid-to-late life.
Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation, June Davison, says the potential benefits of taking up regular physical activity in middle age and beyond are huge.
For some people, the 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week may seem like a lot, she says, but this can be broken down into short 10-minute sessions throughout the day and these easily add up.
“Walk to the shops instead of driving or take the stairs where possible and break up long periods of sitting, every half hour with five minutes of movement,” recommends Davison.
How does exercise benefit our health?
According to the NHS, scientific research has produced evidence proving that people who regularly engage in physical activity are:
- 30% less likely to die early
- Up to 35% less likely to develop coronary heart disease or stroke
- Up to 50% less likely to develop colon cancer or type 2 diabetes
- Up to 20% less likely to develop breast cancer
- Up to 68% less likely fracture a hip
- Up to 30% less likely to experience a fall, develop depression or develop dementia
Mok, A., et al. (2019). Physical activity trajectories and mortality: population-based cohort study. BMJ. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l2323.