Maintaining or even starting a regular regimen of physical activity later in life could increase your chances of healthy aging, both physically and mentally, by up to seven times as much as those who remain inactive, according to new research from an international group of researchers.
In a study released Monday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, a team of researchers from the University College London and the Montreal Behavioural Medicine Centre found that regular physical activity had a positive effect on older adults' likelihood of developing long-term health conditions, depression, dementia, and the likelihood of healthy aging, which also incorporates mental health and cognitive abilities.
"In a growing elderly population, healthy ageing is becoming a crucial factor to reduce the burden of disease and disability and related healthcare costs," the study says. "Emerging evidence suggests that regular physical activity is among the most important lifestyle factors for maintenance of good health at older ages."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is an increasing need for more and better information on helping adults age successfully, because the population of Americans age 65 and older is expected to double in the next 25 years, to about 72 million. Due to longer life spans and aging baby boomers, the CDC says older adults will account for roughly 20 percent of the American population.
The researchers tracked the health of nearly 3,500 people with an average age of 64 who were part of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, which draws from a nationally representative sample of the population of England, born on or before Feb. 29, 1952.
Over the course of four years, nearly 9 percent of the participants remained inactive and nearly 12 percent became inactive, meaning they did not participate in any moderate or vigorous activity on a weekly basis. However, 70 percent of the participants remained active, and 9 percent became active, meaning they maintained moderate or vigorous physical activity at least once a week.
The ideal amount of exercise for those over the age of 65, according to the CDC, is about two-and-a-half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, each week, as well as muscle-strengthening activities, such as weightlifting or yoga, twice a week.
At the end of the eight-year monitoring period, almost four out of 10 participants had developed a long-term health condition, almost one in five was depressed, about one-third had some level of disability, and one in five was cognitively impaired. Still, one in five was defined as a healthy ager.
The team also found that there was a direct link to the likelihood of healthy aging, depending on the amount of exercise taken, even after adjusting for age, sex, socioeconomic status and smoking and alcohol habits.
The authors argue their findings give weight to supporting public health initiatives that encourage regular physical activity among older adults, even those who are of an advanced age.
"Importantly, we demonstrate, for the first time, that participants who remained physically active through follow-up were most likely to age successfully, although participants who took up activity during the follow-up period were also more likely to remain healthy compared with those who were inactive throughout," the study says.