More good news from the physical activity and aging front lines

lift move Jul 05, 2019

I have pre-empted the blog post I had planned for this week to talk about two very important pieces of recently released research. I wanted to write about these two studies in the same post because the results show a really important health trend in the course of aging. Warning: here comes a little more evangelizing on the merits of physical activity. 

A study of more movement in middle age

The first study was done on a large group of people in the UK, who were between the ages of 49-70 [1]. The research began in 1993 and concluded in 2016. These were folks from all walks of life with differing lifestyles and health conditions. Unlike other many other studies in physical activity, those who had existing heart disease and cancer were included in the project. The study team also controlled (meaning they accounted for) the known health impacts of age, sex, smoking, drinking alcohol, education, social class, diet, weight, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure.

Regardless of all the other risk factors, people in the study who were physically active at middle age survived and thrived in comparison to their inactive counterparts. But here’s the interesting twist: those who increased their physical activity at middle age had a 25% decreased risk from dying during the study period, including a 30% decreased risk of dying of heart disease, and an 11% reduced risk of dying of cancer. To be clear, this risk reduction was not because already active people started doing more activity; it was actually in those who were relatively inactive, and who had increased their movement to that magical 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity that I talked about in my last blog post.

Two other important points here are that, 1) this same reduction also occurred in people who already had a history of cancer or heart disease, and, 2) that these same results occurred regardless of other risk factors (e.g., poor quality diet). Why I think this study is so important is that many times people with active diseases are excluded from physical activity research; this long-term study reinforces that even those with a history of cancer and heart disease can potentially live longer just by increasing their rates of physical activity. Also, the overall protective effects of being active can occur even if you only start exercising later in life.

Coming to consensus

Part two in this nerdy review of “this week in research” is about a consensus statement developed by a group of researchers who worked together to come up with a synopsis of the current evidence about physical activity and aging [2]. The group came up with four important themes that included functional capacity and health (how physical activity impacts how your body is functioning both on the inside and on the outside), brain health, behaviour and habits, and how our experience of the world shapes our physical activity patterns. Big topics. Let’s break it down: 

The four most important themes

In the functional capacity theme, the researchers outlined the benefits of physical activity to the aging body. Some of these benefits might seem obvious (like reducing the risk of heart disease) but others may be less so. This included confirmation that those who were physically active in later life were found to have better immune systems, lower risk of depression, and experienced disability for a shorter period of time – meaning that they had a short time of poor mobility at the very end of their lives, unlike those who were inactive who lived with disabling conditions for a decade or more. Again, 150 minutes of activity a week seemed to be the milestone for when changes occurred.

The impact of physical activity on brain health is a relatively recently area of research but has produced some really important findings that deserve a dedicated theme. Overall, the researchers acknowledged that we can confidently say that physical activity has proven benefits for brain health in aging. These include both the slowing down of the natural cognitive decline as we get older, as well as the delaying or slowing of the onset and effects of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Interestingly, unlike the functional benefits that seem to occur at 150 minutes of weekly activity, short-term cognitive performance can be improved in 10-minute bouts of moderate intensity exercise. What’s even more compelling is the growing evidence that those who exercise three hours per week, gain significant improvements in their brain structure and function, as well as improvements in cognitive and motor skills. This is why we recommend 150 minutes of activity a week with, the addendum that more is better.

In the behaviour theme, not surprisingly, the researchers suggested that depressed mood, level of intention, and how you see your own health have an impact on whether you will be physically active. There is also growing evidence to suggest that your emotions and your ability to make exercise a habit make a big difference in whether or not you will be physically active long-term (look out for an upcoming blog post on developing habits that stick).

In the final theme, the researchers looked at the sociology of physical activity. Two important points that emerged were that the impact of your socioeconomic circumstances and your lifelong experience with physical activity really matter. I want to close with this theme because I think this is the biggest area for opportunity for change.  

The impact of perception

I can’t tell you how many women I have talked to over the years who have told me about their negative experiences with trying to be physically active. This includes not getting picked for teams, hating gym class, and generally not seeing themselves as sporty or athletic. This has impacted generations of women to not be physically active into adulthood. Sadly, physical activity rates continue to have a precipitous drop-off as girls enter their teenage years.

As someone who has zero hand eye coordination (really, if you give me a racquet, I’m more likely to hit my own head than the ball), speed, agility, or an athletic body type, I totally get this sentiment. As women we have also been socialized to see ourselves in very narrowly acceptable physical confines and this includes how we are active.

The good news is, that I have also watched many women (of all ages, shapes, and sizes) morph from the “I’m not…”, “I can’t…”, and the, “I’ve never…” camp to the “BRING IT” gang in short order. All they needed was to find the activity that suited them the best. And here’s the thing – aging women are much stronger than they realize (they are way tougher than any of the men in their 20s that I have coached). Not only are aging women some of the fiercest athletes, but they are also well suited to just taking on regular moderate physical activity.

So, if you’re regularly physically active give yourself a huge pat on the back and then consider a small increase to get the most benefit going forward. If you’re not active, trust me when I say physical activity is the strongest and most effective medicine you will ever take. I’ve worked with women who were small and wiry to those who were almost 500 pounds. Physical activity was possible and enjoyable for all women across that continuum. The bottom line is that your body can be more active regardless of shape, size, or ability.

I have been doing this work for 25 years and every year, we find more research supported benefits to being active. Honestly, I’ve yet to see any negatives about moderate, regular physical activity. For your brain health, emotional health, and physical health I encourage you get (or stay) active every day. 

Your sister in health,


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