It's Never Too Late to Start Exercise
Researchers Find Great Rewards When Mild Exercise Programs Are Started Late In Life
May 13, 2003 -- You know the benefits of exercise programs. And
if you've been inactive, you may have also felt them -- with sore
muscles and bruised motivation to continue. But a new study in women shows that
the old adage is true -- it's never too late to start when it comes to exercise
programs. So now what can you do to jump on the exercise bandwagon? WebMD got
exercise tips from the experts.
"There certainly seems to be something here to suggest that
women can start exercising later in life and still reap the rewards," lead
researcher and CDC epidemiologist Edward W. Gregg, PhD, tells WebMD. His
findings are published in the May 14 issue of TheJournal of the
American Medical Association.
Researchers tracked 9,500 women for 12 years, starting when
they were at least age 66. In that time, they found that those who went from
doing little or nothing to walking just a mile a day slashed their risk of
death from all causes and from cancer by nearly half. Their risk of heart
disease also fell by more than a third. In fact, they enjoyed nearly as much
protection as women who were physically active before the study began and
During the study, he and his colleagues surveyed the women on
their exercise levels at the start of the trial and again up to six years
later. Years later, the researchers tracked their rates of death and
The new information we found is that older women who went from
being sedentary or walking about two miles a week to walking eight miles a week
between the two visits had significant life improvements, says another study
researcher, Jane A. Cauley, DrPH, of the University of Pittsburgh.
"We're talking about women with an average age of 77 at the
second visit," she tells WebMD. "And we're talking about their engaging
in very mild exercise -- and not running marathons."
But if the only workout you've been getting lately involves the
TV remote, here's how to avoid those walks around the block from making your
body feel as if it just tackled Boston Marathon's infamous "Heartbreak
- Get a checkup before a workout. A visit to your doctor is wise for
anyone beginning an exercise program, but it's crucial for the elderly or
others who have been inactive because of health problems. In addition to the
obvious -- checking your heart and lungs -- your doctor can help determine if
your regimen needs to consider other medical conditions, and the drugs you take
"People can sometimes control conditions such as diabetes
and high blood pressure with weight loss and exercise so they don't need to
continue their medications," says William A. Banks, MD, professor of
geriatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. It's important to let
your doctor know about your new exercise program in case your medication doses
need to be changed.
"A doctor can also help facilitate the best type of
exercise if you have a disability or impairment. For instance, many of my
patients have bad knees, so I tell them that if they start running or even
walking, they're going to have problems that will likely impact their ability
to continue," he tells WebMD. "So I try to steer them to another
activity, such as swimming, which is especially good for people with joint
problems or obesity."
- Start slow. Once you get the green light, the key to avoiding
fatigue and muscle pain is to pull out of the gate very slowly. "You
hear so much about the importance of getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, but
those recommendations should not be viewed as goals if you've been sedentary --
even if you're healthy," Banks says. "Initially, you should actually
shoot below your comfort level.
"Too often, people -- especially those who are older -- overdo it in the
beginning and they hurt themselves to the point where they need two weeks to
recover. It's better to walk for a few minutes a day, every day, then do 10
minutes your first day and then not be able to walk for the rest of the
- Go more often. Of course, those few minutes of your exercise program
can be done several times a day. First, try to do some activity for a few
minutes several times a day. Then slowly increase the time spent in each
session. But don't worry about going faster until you've exercised regularly
for at least one month. A key to intensity: Ideally, you want to be aerobic
enough so you can utter a few words or syllables in each sentence, but not so
little that you're speaking in complete sentences or too much so you can barely
talk, advises Banks.
- Don't go solo. Although there is no evidence that people are fitter
when they exercise with others, they are more likely to stick to an exercise
program, or anything else, with the buddy system. "We're always better in
the company of others," says Banks.
Another benefit to group activities: Organized exercise programs, like those
available for low or no cost at the YMCA or local hospitals, often include
professional guidance -- especially useful for those with conditions such as
obesity, diabetes, and arthritis. "There are exercise therapists or
physiologists who can expertly guide you to the proper way to increase your
endurance and intensity without risking injury or fatigue," says Gregg.
- Do what you enjoy. While Gregg's study and others have focused on
walking because it's among the easiest and most popular forms of exercise, you
should pick an activity you like, so you continue it. It could be gardening,
swimming, tennis, or the old favorite, walking. "If you absolutely hate
exercise, like me, I recommend exercise machines," says Banks. "Since I
hate to exercise, I run on a treadmill while watching TV. I'm especially fond
of working out while watching the cartoon Pinky and the Brain."