It's Never Too Late to Start Exercise

Researchers Find Great Rewards When Mild Exercise Programs Are Started Late In Life

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on May 13, 2003

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 remained so.

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 disease.

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 Hill"

  • 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 for them.

    "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 week."

  • 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."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Journal of the American Medical Association, May 14, 2003. Edward W. Gregg, PhD, epidemiologist, CDC, Atlanta. Jane A. Cauley, DrPH, professor of epidemiology, University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health. William A. Banks, MD, professor of geriatrics, Saint Louis University School of Medicine; principal investigator and staff physician, Veteran's Affairs Medical Center, St. Louis.

© 2003 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info