Nov. 24, 1999 (Minneapolis) -- A bit out of shape? Don't be discouraged. New research shows that people who begin an exercise program later in life still get the protective effects of physical activity -- namely longer life and less heart disease. The findings, published in the November issue of the American Heart Journal, suggest that for inactive people, it may never be too late to begin exercising.
"The most important finding from our study is that it doesn't matter if people were active most of their lives or not. They'll still get benefits right now if they begin [exercising now]," lead researcher Scott E. Sherman, MD, MPH, tells WebMD. "Exercise is like medicine. If you take it, you'll see results. If you stop, you won't."
The researchers examined more than 2,300 men and women (aged 30-62 years) over a 16-year period to learn how much time they spent sleeping and engaged in light, moderate, or heavy physical activity on a typical day. All the study participants had no evidence of heart disease.
Researchers found that recent physical activity was associated with a lower overall rate of death in both men and women. When they examined the hours spent at moderate and heavy activity, they found that men and women with the lowest rate of death were less active in the past, but were most active recently. Their study also revealed that physical activity earlier in life was associated with a lower rate of heart disease in men, but a higher rate of heart disease in women. Researchers could not explain this finding.
"The main message of this study is that continual exercise is important," Gerald Fletcher, MD, tells WebMD. "If people stop exercising, their risk of [heart disease] and death can go up by 25% in a short period of time. If people start exercising later -- at age 40, 50, or 60 -- they still get a benefit. However, the college athletes who quit and then come back are not as protected [from heart disease] until they get back into it again." Fletcher, who is a committee member for the American Heart Association (AHA), is a cardiologist at the Mayo Medical School, Mayo Clinic and Foundation in Jacksonville, Fla. He was not involved in the study.
"[These findings] suggest that people should just get out there and exercise," study investigator Sherman tells WebMD. "Even if you haven't exercised before, almost anyone can start walking." Sherman says it's a good idea to talk about the appropriate exercise regimen with your doctor if you're over 45. "Rather than worry about what exercise to do or how often, just start," he says.
Fletcher says that while the AHA has told the world for more than 30 years to exercise, there's a proper way to do it. "The AHA recommends vigorous exercise," he says. "However, if someone is going to join a health club, or has smoked or has heart disease, he would benefit from a professional health check before starting an exercise program."
- People who start exercising later in life can still reap the health benefits, regardless of their age.
- In a study, recent physical activity was associated with lower overall mortality in women and men.
- Continual exercise is important, because when people stop exercising, the risk of death and heart disease increases again by as much as 25%.