New research shows that if you’ve reached middle age or have long since passed it, it’s still not too late to exercise. According to researchers from the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine in London, maintaining exercise habits or initiating light to moderate physical activity later in life reduces overall mortality risk as well as lowers the risk of heart attack in older men – including those with existing cardiovascular disease.

The researchers reviewed data collected from middle-aged men who were part of a large study looking at cardiovascular disease. The men answered questionnaires about their health and exercise habits, first in the late 1970s and again in the early 1990s. The 7,735 men who answered the first questionnaire were 40 to 59 years old. Nearly 6,000 participated in the second questionnaire. Their average age at that time was 63. These men were followed for an additional 4 years

Men who described themselves as inactive or occasionally active in the first questionnaire but who had begun “at least light activity” by the time of the second questionnaire reduced their risk of death by about 45%. Even men with preexisting cardiovascular disease appeared to benefit from exercising. Regular moderate exercise seems to confer the greatest benefit. Light physical activities included walking, gardening, swimming, and cycling.

More vigorous activities, such as participating in sports, “do not appear to give any additional benefit to health for older men, and our findings suggest that frequent light physical activity may be more appropriate,” the authors write.

For older men, and, presumably, older women as well, “encouragement… to increase their physical activity gradually and regularly would help to maintain mobility, to prolong independence, and to reduce the risk of heart attacks and mortality,” say the researchers.

  1. The Lancet 1998;351:1603-1608.