The good news is that Americans are living longer – an average of 78 years, up from an average of 47 years back in 1900 and an average of 74 years as recently as 1980. The bad news is that many Americans are not living as well in their "twilight years" as they had hoped. At the same time that life expectancy has been growing, so have the numbers of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, which are increasingly affecting people who are past middle age but not yet considered elderly. So living longer is in many cases becoming synonymous with living with chronic disease longer.
The benefits of exercise and becoming more fit in one's 60s or afterwards has been established, and many elderly people have been able to slow or to some extent reverse the progress of their chronic diseases by adding more gentle exercise to their daily routines. But a recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that for those of us who are still middle-aged, adding more exercise to our lives can actually prevent many of these chronic diseases from occurring later in life, or at the very least delay their onset.
Fitness in middle age may mean better health in old age
The long-term study, conducted on a group of men and women with an average age of 49, was first begun in 1970, when they visited the Cooper Clinic for a health checkup. The 18,670 subjects were all generally healthy and free from chronic diseases, and were given a treadmill test in 1970 to test their levels of aerobic fitness.
Thirty to forty years later, the researchers conducting the recent study contacted the original 18,670 subjects, most of whom were by then in their 70s or 80s, and with their permission compared their original test results with their Medicare claim records. Their findings were that the subjects who had been the least fit in their middle age had developed the most chronic disease conditions – including diabetes, Alzheimer's, heart disease, and cancer – later in life.
In addition, researchers found that subjects who were the most fit in their middle age may have developed some of the same chronic conditions, but much later in life. Instead of spending the last 10 to 20 years of their lives dealing with chronic illness, they experienced them only in the last five years of their lives. The conclusion drawn by the researchers was that exercising and becoming more fit in middle age effectively "compresses the time" that one may spend infirm or debilitated in their old age, enabling them to experience a better quality of life during the early years of their retirement.
What does "becoming more fit in middle age" mean?
Doctors and health care specialists reviewing the results of this long-term study are quick to point out that becoming more fit in middle age doesn't necessarily mean running marathons or lifting weights several times a week. Dr. Benjamin Willis, leader of the recent study, says, "You don't have to become an athlete. Just getting up off the couch is key." He emphasizes that just walking 20 to 30 minutes a day most days of the week would raise the fitness levels of most middle-aged Americans tremendously, and thus improve their chances of experiencing a more fulfilling and disease-free old age.
Another recent study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found similar results. Among 9,611 adults studied, those who were most active in their 50s and 60s were found to be 35% less likely to die in the next eight years than those who were relatively inactive. And by "activity," the researchers found that those who walked, worked in their gardens, or went dancing several times a week reduced their mortality risk just as much as those who engaged in more strenuous exercise programs.
This study found that the people most likely to benefit in their old age from exercising more in middle age were those with existing health risks – a history of cardiovascular disease, stroke, or heart attack. This is an important finding, because there is a tendency among those who have experienced such conditions to become more sedentary, out of fear of triggering another episode.
The "takeaway" from these studies seems clear. There are proven benefits to exercising more during one's middle years, benefits that may help to improve the quality of our later years. And "exercising" need not mean signing up for the gym and working out with the twenty-year-olds several times a week. It can mean just getting up off the couch and walking more.