How exercise can help you age gracefully

March 2023

Advances in medicine and technology mean human beings are living longer than ever before. But are we aging well?

If we are living longer, it is a given that we should be living healthier to achieve the best quality of life throughout our years. More and more research is being published that shows how exercise can help us achieve this. These studies show that regular, life-long exercise can result in better health outcomes as we age. 

Science proves the benefits of life-long exercise

Researchers from Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine published a study which found that when older people spent one hour a week doing moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise, they had fewer aches and pains. This means that a brisk walk for just 10 minutes a day can have a positive effect on joint pain and mobility impairment.

For almost 20 years, researchers examined adults aged 49 to 83 who had osteoarthritis of the knee and were at risk of developing mobility issues as they aged. The participants had previously experienced pain in their hip, knee, ankle or foot and were at increased risk of disability due to their symptoms, which included aching or stiffness. The study showed that despite their disadvantage linked to the existing condition, those who exercised regularly experienced both less pain and decreased difficulty in performing everyday tasks.

It also increases your quality of life because physical activity can mean better mobility for longer and lessen the risk of injuries through falls as you age. For many, this means extended independence and the ability to care for yourself as you age—something that is very important to many people.

Lead author Dorothy Dunlop explains that "identifying an evidence-based physical activity goal which supports these basic abilities (of mobility), may motivate inactive older adults to begin their path towards health benefits from a physically active lifestyle." It may not always be easy to commit to regular or daily exercise, but even incorporating short periods of 'natural' physical movement, like walking as much as possible in carrying out daily activities and doing household chores such as washing up the dishes or gardening, can be beneficial. 

A study of 122,007 patients considered the effect of cardio-respiratory fitness on the length of life over a decade. Researchers found that people who exercised had a lower risk of dying — from any illness. And the more they exercised, the lower their risk of dying was. 

Individuals who engage in higher volumes of cardio exercise that improves their cardio-respiratory fitness have lower risks of developing coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes, stroke and cancer.

It’s important to incorporate exercise that lowers your risk of early frailty and disability—think functional exercises and daily activities such as gardening, shopping, and house cleaning. You should also include strength exercises that slow down the aging effect of sarcopenia (muscle loss) and low bone density. 

You have power over your genes

Can exercise lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, even if you have a family history or genetic profile that puts you at risk? 

The research shows that exercise could be effective in silencing even those genes that put us at higher risk of heart disease. A study published in the journal Circulation, showed strength-training and cardio-respiratory fitness (in this case, achieved by regularly using a stationary bike) lowered the risk of heart disease — whether people were categorized with low, intermediate or high genetic risk of heart disease.

"Genes don't have to determine destiny," says Dr. Erik Ingelsson, in an article published by the American Heart Association. The lead study author and professor of medicine at Stanford University, added, "You can impact your risk (and lower it) by being more fit." The study showed that the fittest of the heart disease-prone study participants were more than twice as likely to be alive 10 years later, compared with the least fit.

Science proves you can start exercising at any age

It is never too late to start exercising. Fitness-related studies show that even people who don't start working out until middle age see similar longevity benefits to those who have started exercising at a younger age. A study by the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland showed that people who reported consistently high levels of exercise from youth through middle age were 36% less likely to die of any cause during the study period when compared to people who were inactive throughout their lives. 

But inactive people, who got moving later, between the ages of 40 and 61, experienced similar benefits. And when previously inactive people started exercising in middle age, they were 35% less likely to die of all causes during the study than if they remained inactive.

Study leader Pedro Saint-Maurice says, "These findings suggest that if you're active in early adulthood, stay active. Don't stop. [But] if you're in your 40-60s and you have not been active for a long time, it's not too late to start exercising now."

Health is the ultimate wealth

Regularly exercising and experiencing fewer aches and pains as you age may be reason enough to feel happy about getting to the gym or hopping on your bike. But staying fit also helps to lift your mood. 

In a joint study, published in The Lancet, researchers from Yale and Oxford universities concluded that any exercise —from mowing the lawn to weight-lifting — makes people happier. Assessing the income, physical behaviour and mental mood of more than 1.2 million participants, researchers found that people who stayed active tended to be happier than those who did not exercise, even when the latter earned significantly more per year.

Health is the ultimate wealth and living a long, happy, healthy life is more important to most people than making more money at their job. Because all the money in the world can’t bring you the feeling of health and well-being that taking care of your body brings.

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