By Sara Chodosh
Maintaining fitness is so much easier than gaining it, and it’s painful to feel like you’re the only one struggling at the gym. If you’re in your 50s or 60s and looking to get fit for the first time, you might wonder if it’s even worth the effort.
A new study suggests it is, and that people who start exercising later in life – yes, even after age 50 – reduce their mortality risk just as much as people who’ve been exercising their whole lives when compared to folks who are completely sedentary. What’s more, that held true regardless of how a person’s BMI fluctuated throughout their lives.
The study, published in JAMA Network Open, shows how powerful exercise is and why it’s so important to be active at every age. Researchers split 315,059 participants into three groups: those who were active throughout their lives, those who were inactive as youngsters but became active as they got older, and those who were active youths who became less active in their later years.
Unsurprisingly, those who got regular exercise throughout their lives fared pretty well. Compared to a control group of people who had never been active, people who exercised 2-8 hours per week had a 29 to 36 percent reduced mortality risk (meaning they were that much less likely to die during the course of the data collection). Those who squeezed in just one hour a week reduced their risk by 16 percent.
But even the researchers were surprised by how much adults who got into the exercise game late impacted their health. Those who upped their activity once they were older had mortality rates 32 to 35 percent lower than the control group – just as much as those who exercised from adolescence straight through their 60s. That was true even after researchers factored in whether people smoked, their educational level, race, alcohol consumption, diet, and other mortality influencers. Meanwhile, people who started out quite active but slowed down as they got older lost nearly all of the benefit of that early activity, reducing risk by only about 8 to 14 percent.
It’s impossible to gather a large group of people, assign them a specified amount of exercise per week for their entire lives, then study if working out causes a lowered mortality risk. There have been, however, a few studies that looked at late-life exercise that had similar findings. A 2009 study in Sweden found that men who started exercising in their 50s had comparable mortality risks to those who exercised consistently. A 2017 study found that, though people who maintained high levels of activity fared the best, people who increased activity later in life still reduced their cardiovascular mortality risk by 25 percent.
It’s difficult to know precisely how much you can improve your health by starting to exercise, but it’s clear that no matter your age or BMI, increased activity will help you. Any amount is a good amount, and a little is always better than nothing. So get moving any way you can.