Why the Time to Exercise Is Now

If you need one more reason to get moving, consider a new study which suggests that staying fit in midlife can improve the quality of your life later on. It turns out that keeping in shape in midlife heads off chronic diseases and shortens their duration, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

"We've known for years that exercise is good for you, but what hasn't been clear is to what extent the health benefits persist across a lifespan," said study author Jarrett Berry, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

For the research, scientists looked at the data of 18,670 participants in the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study. The data, which contained more than 250,000 medical records maintained over four decades, were linked with the Medicare claims patients filed later in life, from ages 70 to 85.  When patients increased fitness levels by 20 percent in their midlife years, they decreased by 20 percent their chances of developing chronic diseases such as colon cancer, congestive heart failure, and Alzheimer's disease decades later. Both men and women enjoyed the health benefit, which lasted until the end of life.

"What sets this study apart is that it focuses on the relationship between midlife fitness and quality of life in later years. Fitter individuals aged well with fewer chronic illnesses to impact their quality of life," said The Cooper Institute's Benjamin Willis, MD, MPH, first author on the study.

For maximum health benefits, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends adults get a minimum of 2½ hours of moderate to intense aerobic activity each week.

But for individuals who are not physically fit and who would like to start exercising, what's the best course of action? Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • If you haven't exercised in awhile, see your doctor first, advises Ken Spaeth, MD, MPH, an internist in the Department of Population Health in the North Shore LIJ Health System on Long Island, New York. Depending upon your medical history, your doctor may give you the green light to exercise or may recommend some tests first.
  • Exercise is great medicine, Spaeth says. "If exercise were a pill, it would be the most prescribed pill in the country since it brings tremendous physical and mental health benefits and improves the quality of our lives," he says.
  • Walking is a great form of exercise, he says, and it is free and very accessible. "You don't just wake up one day and go out and run a marathon," Spaeth advises. "But generally, brisk walking will not be a problem and you can get real benefit from a cardiovascular and weight-loss standpoint."
  • Beyond walking, it's important to find a form of exercise that you enjoy, whether it's bicycling, kayaking, or playing tennis. That's because it's far too easy to stop doing the exercise if it gets boring. "Exercise is like dieting," Spaeth says. "Getting started is one thing, but continuing it can be a challenge."
  • Approach exercise in a reasonable way, Spaeth advises. Chances are you're a little less resilient than you were in your 20s, and you don't want to push yourself too hard. "Listen to your body," Spaeth says. "If you are in real pain afterward, stop the exercise. You need to give your body time to recover. Certainly in middle age, you want to be mindful."



"Midlife fitness delays chronic disease." 27 August 2012. CNN Health.

"Midlife fitness staves off chronic disease at end of life." 27 August 2012. Southwestern Medical Center Newsroom.