Study suggests it’s never to late to be active

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On Monday this week my blog focused on benefits from exercise seen in obese adolescents and children, even in the absence of weight loss. This week also saw the publication of a study which suggests that exercise may have benefits for the elderly too [1].

In this study, almost 2000 elderly individuals aged 70 were enrolled in a study which followed them over an 18-year period. Individuals taking 4 hours or more of gentle exercise each week were classified as ‘physically active’, while those less active than this were classified as ‘sedentary’. The researchers looked at the relationship between levels of activity and overall risk of death, as well as markers for health and wellbeing including the ability to independently perform activities of daily living such as dressing and washing.

Overall, the physically active were found to be at a significantly reduced risk of death. For example, at age 70, overall risk of death over the next 8 years was 15 per cent in the physically active compared to 27 per cent in sedentary individuals. At age 78, mortality over the next 8 years was 26 and 41 per cent respectively. At age 85, mortality over the next 3 years was 7 and 24 per cent respectively. All of these results were statistically significant. In addition, physically active individuals at age 78 were about twice as likely to be able to maintain independence in their activities of daily living at age 85.

Of course, these data don’t prove that exercise is good for the elderly. It could be that individuals who had better health were more likely to be physically active. The researchers attempted to discern whether this was the case by factoring in so-called ‘confounding factors’ such as smoking, history of disease and weight. Even after this has been done, there was still some evidence that being physically active in this elderly population. For example, in individuals aged 70, risk of death over the next 8 years was reduced by about half in those who were physically active. The same was true for individuals aged 85 over the next three years.

Perhaps even more significantly, individuals who started exercising during the course of the study (so, individuals in their 70s or 80s) appeared to experience a survival benefit. In this analysis, confounding factors were not controlled for, however.

Taken as a whole though, this study does appear to provide some evidence that even gentle exercise is beneficial for the elderly, as long as it is of reasonable duration. Other evidence regarding the benefits of taking up exercise relatively late in life can be had here. The evidence as it stands appears to support the notion that it’s never too late to start taking exercise or becoming more active. Having said that, it’s never too early either.


1. Stessman J, et al. Physical activity, function, and longevity among the very old. Arch Int Med 2009;169(16):1476-1483

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