Okay, so you’ve reached middle age. You enjoy your time reclining comfortably on your couch after a hard day’s work. Perhaps tonight you’re watching a show on TV featuring trim athletic people scampering around, and you suddenly let out a sigh.
You remember back 20 or 30 thirty years ago when you yourself were in good shape. Maybe you played soccer or lifted weights or ran 10 Ks. You were fast. You were strong. You were agile. But that was in the past. Now you’ve consigned yourself to being a couch potato extraordinaire.
“What’s the use of remembering the glory days anyway?” you muse. “That was then. This is now.”
But wait a minute. While you may never again be able to look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club or Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby (though if you worked really hard you’d be amazed what a proper diet and exercise can do for your physique, even at 60), you still may be able to recapture most of the health benefits you lost by not exercising for 30 years.
That’s right! If you start doing moderate to vigorous exercise every day, right now, you can reap almost the same benefits of longevity as someone who at your age has been exercising their whole life.
It sounds too good to be true, right? But it’s true!
Check out this recently published study.
National Cancer Institute Study
Last month, the JAMA Network Open published a study by the National Cancer Institute that involved 315,059 men and women between 50 and 71 years old.
The study relied on data from the N.I.H.-AARP Diet and Health study which began in 1995. The N.I.H. researchers sent questionnaires to participants asking them to detail their leisure time physical activities throughout their lives from teens years to the present.
The participants were asked questions such as how frequently and how intensely they had walked, played sports, jogged, lifted weights, and even how much heavy housework or gardening they did. This is the questionnaire they used.
The Main Data From The Study
As you can see, the questionnaire lists 16 different types of leisure time activities. From now on, I’m going to call these activities exercise.
Basically, researchers wanted to know how frequently the participants engaged in moderate to vigorous exercise during four specific periods of their lives.
These periods included their teen years, young adulthood (19-29), the mid to late thirties, and also in the last 10 years. In this last period, participants would have been between 40 – 61 years old.
Researchers then took this data and separated the participants into different groups that exhibited different patterns of exercise throughout their lives. These groups were Maintainers, Increasers, and Decreasers. The following is a description of each pattern.
- Maintainers: Those participants who maintained approximately the same amount of moderate to vigorous exercise for their entire lives.
- Increasers: Individuals who increased the amount of moderate to vigorous exercise they engaged in either in early or late adulthood.
- Decreasers: Individuals who, as they aged, decreased the amount of moderate to vigorous exercise they engaged in.
Here is how the exercise data was recorded. LTPA refers to leisure-time physical activities (exercise). I’ve highlighted some categories so you can see the difference between each group. Notice that in the Increaser category some individuals increased their exercise activity in early adulthood while others increased theirs in later adulthood. This will become important later on.
Researchers also took into consideration a number of variables such as race, gender, education levels, smoking, BMI, etc.
The Control Group
The study’s control group consisted of individuals who never or rarely exercised throughout their entire lives. Researchers used this group to evaluate the all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk, and cancer risk of the other patterns.
The Results Of The Study
The researches found that individuals who maintained or increased moderate or vigorous amounts of exercise (2-8 hours per week) throughout their lifetimes experienced a 29% to 36% lower risk of all-cause and cardiovascular disease (CVD) related mortality than those who seldom exercised.
In the graph to the right, groups 7, 8, and 10 are Maintainers.
The result above also holds for individuals who exercised quite a bit in their teens, reduced in their thirties, but continued up again.
Individuals who practiced one hour of exercise per week throughout their lifetime (group 5) only experienced a 16% lower risk.
Group 1 was the control group.
In the graph to the right, groups 2 and 3 are Increasers.
As you can see, some individuals started exercising in young adulthood while others started to intensify their exercise after 40 years old.
Now here’s the amazing finding!
Researchers found that individuals who increased their exercise routine either early or later in adulthood had a 32% to 35% lower all-cause mortality risk.
Note that this risk factor was very similar to those people who maintained higher exercise levels from adolescence to 40 to 61 years of age (29%-36%).
Additionally, the CVD-related mortality risk for participants who increased exercise in later adulthood (40-61 years of age) was 43% lower when compared with the group who seldom exercised.
Did you get that? If you start doing moderate to higher amounts of exercise later in adulthood, even if you hadn’t exercised for decades, you could reap the same health benefits as someone who has exercised their whole life.
Individuals who reported high levels of exercise early in adulthood but lower levels by ages 40 to 61 appeared to have little all-cause or CVD-related mortality protection in midlife.
So, if you engaged in moderate to intense exercise in early adulthood and then stop exercising, you will lose the benefits you gained from all that effort you expended.
The results for cancer-related mortality weren’t as impressive as those for all-cause or CVD mortality but the trend appeared to hold.
Maintaining at least 2 to 7 hours per week resulted in a 14% lower risk when compared with participants who were consistently inactive throughout adulthood
Maintaining some exercise (1 hour/wk throughout adult life course) was associated with similar risk for cancer-related mortality as the control group.
Increasing exercise during adulthood was associated with lower cancer-related mortality. Participants who increased exercise in later adulthood (40-61 years of age) had a 16% lower risk when compared with the control group
There were no significant differences in risk for cancer-related mortality between participants who were consistently inactive (the control group) and those who decreased exercise across the course of their lives.
Again, if you exercised intensely when you were an adolescent or in young adulthood but then stopped, you would have essentially the same risk factor as someone who never actively engaged in any serious exercise.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve done moderate to intensive exercise your whole life, that’s great. You’ll reap many more health benefits than someone who never exercised. But don’t stop now or you could lose all the health benefits you’ve accrued!
But here’s the exciting news!
Let’s say, you’re in your forties, fifties, or even sixties, and you’ve done little to no exercise your entire life. If you get off that couch now and begin a moderate to a vigorous exercise program, you may gain the same health benefits as someone who exercised their whole life.
In my case, because of chronic fatigue syndrome, the only exercise I was able to do from 30 years old until 58 years old was brisk daily walking. But for the last four years, I’ve been able to strength train 5 days a week.
And now I’m the healthiest and strongest I’ve been in 28 years. That’s my N=1 study proving that it’s never too late to start exercising.
One Important Limitation To The Study: Moderate Or Vigorous Exercise
I couldn’t find in the study’s data how different kinds of moderate or vigorous exercise affected the risk results. In other words, did 4 hours of playing baseball or golfing equate to 4 hours of jogging? The researchers might have felt this factor didn’t affect the results. I don’t know.
However, looking at the hazard ratio data, the study did tell us that most Maintainers and Increasers reach their maximum health benefits at between 6 – 8 hours a week of moderate to vigorous exercise.
That may sound like a lot of exercise, but it’s not. A half hour brisk walk and a half hour of strength training 5 days a week will give you 5 hours of vigorous exercise.
Here, though, is something key. If you can engage in high-intensity interval training (HITT), then you can cut this time down even more! See here.
Other Limitations To The Study
Second, all participants had to be free of colorectal cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, or renal disease. However, the researchers could not be sure of every participant’s health status at the beginning of the study.
I would also have liked to know if diet played a significant part in the final results.
Nevertheless, the authors of the study were confident that after adjusting for many risk factors their results were highly accurate.
They also pointed out that their results were consistent with other studies but that this study was unique in that it recorded 46 years of data. That is considerably longer than any previous study.
What also makes this study quite compelling is the large number of participants that were included.
Exercise And The Quality of Your Life As You Age
The N.I.H. study told us that if we get up off the couch and start a moderate to vigorous weekly exercise program, we can regain many of the benefits of longevity that lifelong exercisers enjoy.
However, what the study didn’t tell us was how much 6 hours of moderate or vigorous exercise will improve our quality of life as we age.
In other words, if your exercise program prevented you from dying prematurely, getting CVD, or cancer, that’s good. But if you can’t climb the stairs or get off the toilet at 70 years old, how well are you really living?
So, the big question becomes which form of exercise will give you the benefits of longevity and also increase or maintain your quality of life as you age?
Strength Training: The Best Bang For Your Exercise Buck
Last year, a University of Michigan study of 8,326 men and women found that “people with low muscle strength are 50 percent more likely to die earlier.”
Another recent study of 12,591 individuals (mean age 47 years) showed that even 1 hour of strength training per week reduced the risk of total CVD events by 40%-70%. A similar result held for CVD morbidity and all-cause mortality.
So strength training can provide the benefits of longevity. But it will also provide you the means to have a better quality of life.
It definitely will improve your muscle quality and mass. That means you’ll look better, and that’s always important to us and our significant other, right?
However, you’ll also become a stronger you. That means you’ll be able to do the things you want to do well into old age.
I like what strength coach Mark Rippetoe says about people who strength train:
Strong people are harder to kill than weak people and more useful in general.
But there are still more benefits to strength training. This next one is remarkable.
Strength Training And Anti-Aging
Did you know that strength training has been shown to reverse aging in muscle tissue? That’s right! Strength training can actually make your muscles young again.
See my post here describing studies that show how strength training in older individuals caused their muscular gene expression and mitochondrial health to become consistent with that in much younger individuals.
Strength training may be a modern fountain of youth.
Reasons I Prefer Strength Training Over Running
I know, I know. We were always told if you want to get into shape, get yourself a good pair of trainers and start jogging.
But, in my opinion, strength training for overall longevity and health benefits is superior to long slow cardio. I’m probably biased here, but these are my reasons.
While steady-state aerobic activity like jogging will provide some cardio benefits, there are some negatives which us older persons have to be aware of.
- Running will build up your legs, but it won’t build up your whole body.
- Lower body injuries like sprains, shin splints, tendonitis, and stress fractures are common running injuries.
- Running requires good weather or a treadmill.
On the other hand, consider the positives of strength training.
- Strength training may improve cardiovascular health as much as running. Also, see here.
- Increased muscle mass means better insulin sensitivity.
- Stronger and denser bones.
- Improved cognitive health when you train your legs. See my post here.
- Improved mobility and balance (that means less chance of falling)
- A stronger back which means you’ll have fewer back problems See my post here.
- Strength training can be done in a variety of different ways (body weight, barbells, circuit training, etc.)
For a more detailed look at why everyone over 40 should strength train, see my post here.
If I’ve convinced you to start a strength training routine, see my post on how to begin strength training here. I started this program when I was 58 years old, and I continue to train at 62.
But, remember, the best exercise is the one you consistently do!
That’s it for this week. I hope you start your exercise routine this week. Remember to check with your doctor first to see if you can start exercising.
If you have any comments we would love to hear from you.
God bless and have a great week!
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