How even moderate exercise can help in later life


older couple jogging in park

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As we get older, it becomes more and more important that we keep healthy by staying active. As well as keeping joints moving, regular exercise is important for the heart, lungs and brain. It helps protect against everything from diabetes and cancer to depression and dementia. But what happens if you're finding it harder these days to follow the advice? According to a new study, even a moderate amount of exercise can go a long way.


Keep Moving

According to the CDC, adults need either at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as brisk walking) every week coupled with muscle-strengthening activities (like lifting weights or doing push-ups) on two or more days of the week or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (jogging or running) every week as well as the same muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups.

Sounds like a little more than you think you can manage? Take heart. A new study by Dr. David Hupin at the University Hospital of Saint-Etienne, France, which is published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, suggests that for those over 60, a little moderate to vigorous physical activity every week — even when it's below the recommended amount — still seems to reduce the risks posed by inactivity.


One better day

Recognizing the issues older people sometimes face when trying to stay active, the researchers wanted to know if an amount of regular activity below the recommended level could still count toward improved health and wellness. For this they conducted a "metadata" study — one which combines the results of a number of previous studies to get an overall picture. The researchers examined figures that had recorded weekly physical activity for those aged 60 and above up to February 2015.

The scientists looked at what they call the Metabolic Equivalent of Task (MET) minutes. This is the amount of energy (in calories) burned for every minute of physical activity — the scale starts at one MET minute, which is equal to the energy spent just sitting. Doing moderate intensity activity counts between 3 and 5.9 MET minutes, while vigorous intensity activity counts as 6 or more. The current recommendation by the U.S. government's Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion is a target of 500 to 1,000 MET minutes every week.


Give me a reason

The combined study looked at a total of 122,417 participants, who were monitored for an average of around 10 years. The researchers looked at the associated risks for four categories of weekly physical activity: inactive, low (1-499), medium (500-999) and high (1,000+). As you might expect, the more physical activity a person engaged in, the greater the health benefit. For those who completed the minimum recommended weekly MET minutes, there was a 28% lower risk of death, while more than 1,000 minutes was associated with a 35% lower risk.

However, they found that those who managed less than 500 weekly MET minutes of physical activity — below the minimum recommended level — still had a 22% lower risk of death compared with those who were inactive. The greatest benefit, the researchers say, seemed to be among those who went from doing nothing or only a minimal amount of physical activity to doing more. For both sexes, there was a significant reduction in the risk of dying from heart disease or stroke, while the reduction in deaths from all causes was considerably greater in older women than it was in older men.


The young and the old

Hupin and his colleagues argue that existing advice for physical activity might in some cases be counterproductive. "Based on these results," they say, "we believe that the target for physical activity in the current recommendations might be too high for older adults and may discourage some of them ... The fact that any effort will be worthwhile may help convince those 60% of participants over 60 years of age, who do not practice any regular physical activity, to become active."

The researchers say their data suggest 250 MET minutes — that's 75 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, or 15 minutes a day — are associated with improved health benefits. The team says the first 15 minutes seem to have the greatest impact and suggest that this could be "a reasonable target dose." This is potentially great news for those — of any age — who might feel they aren't able to move quite as far and for as long as they used to. As other recent studies have shown for those fighting conditions like bone loss or sarcopenia, exercise can be key to keeping on top of their health.