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Exercising in Midlife May ‘Reverse’ Years of Inactivity, Large Study Finds

Exercising in Midlife May ‘Reverse’ Years of Inactivity, Large Study Finds

Posted on May 6, 2024 Updated on May 5, 2024

As the world’s aging population grows, and dementia, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis reach epidemic levels, people of all ages want to know how they can live healthier, not just longer, lives.

For women in their 40s and 50s, it’s not too late to take action. A study that tracked more than 11,000 women in Australia has found that midlife is a crucial time to meet physical activity guidelines of at least 150 minutes a week.

Women in the study who said they maintained those guidelines consistently over the next 15 years had better physical health scores than those women who did not.

Even participants who did not exercise regularly before middle age benefited from the new routine. In fact, at the final follow-up study, this group’s physical test scores were virtually the same as the group of women who regularly exercised before their 50s – three percentage points ahead of women who never or rarely met the exercise guidelines.

Future studies are needed to see if these physical benefits also extend to men in mid-life, but there is good reason to suspect they might.

“Our findings suggest that to maintain good physical health-related quality of life at around age 70, one may be able to “make up” for not being active earlier by becoming active in the mid-50s,” write the research team, led by scientists at the University of Sydney.

“This finding supports public health initiatives for messaging around “turning back the clock” in midlife through lifestyle changes such as physical activity.”

Interestingly, women in the study who only started exercising consistently in their 60s did not see the same benefits as those who started in their 50s. Lead author and epidemiologist, Binh Nguyen, and her colleagues suspect that is because there “had not been sufficient accumulation of physical activity for the health benefits to be evident by around age 70.”

Regular exercise is hardly a new prescription for middle-aged folk, or people of any age, really. Numerous large population studies have linked physical activity to a lower risk of death, yet surprisingly, few long-term studies have tracked the health effects of exercise as a person ages.

The new study tracked 47- to 52-year-old women in Australia from 1998 to 2019, with intermittent check-ups for mental and physical health occurring every three years.

Participants reported their own physical activity, which may not reflect reality. However, even when controlling for socioeconomic, dietary, and other physical and mental health factors, a “small but meaningful” benefit emerged.

To put three percentage points in context, the researchers in Australia explain that osteoarthritis usually results in a 10-point difference in a person’s physical functioning scores compared to those without it.

A recent meta-analysis suggests even just one point difference on this physical activity test can lower the risk of mortality in the general population.

“Combined with existing evidence, this study contributes to growing evidence of the benefits of maintaining or adopting an active lifestyle in mid-age,” the researchers conclude.

The study was published in PLOS Medicine.

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