As we grow older we become more aware of our own mortality. Recommendations from health organizations are clear. Adults of all ages should aim to be active at least 150 minutes a week, with a focus on moderate to vigorous aerobic activity to achieve health benefits (1). Exercise is as important for health in older people as it is in younger ones. However, many people in their so-called “golden years” are contented to be slowing down and the thought of vigorous or even moderate exercise seems too daunting to contemplate. Indeed, despite known health advantages of moderate to vigorous physical activity, few adults and even fewer older adults meet these guidelines.
It has been discovered, however, that even a relatively small amount of exercise can have a meaningful effect on health and even on longevity. The American Heart Association Epidemiology and Prevention, Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health meeting held on March 5, 2020 presented two studies strongly suggesting that exercise in old age does not have to be strenuous to be effective.
The first study;
In these days of smart phones, Fitbits and other wearable devices that can measure the number of steps a person takes in a day, it is commonly believed that at least 10,000 steps are necessary before any reduction in death from cardiovascular disease can be observed. There is actually little evidence for this opinion. The first study presented at the American Heart Association meeting used accelerometers to measure the steps taken by 5,638 ethnically diverse women aged 63 to 97 and found that taking daily steps in amounts far below 10,000 steps were still protective to health (2).
Study results showed the following;
Women who walked 2,100 to 4,500 steps daily reduced their risk of dying from heart attacks, heart failure, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases by up to 38% compared to women who walked less than 2,100 steps a day.
Women who walked more than 4,500 steps daily reduced this risk by 48%.
Lowering sedentary time by 1 hour a day was associated with a 12% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 26% lower risk of heart disease.
These benefits were not dependent on how fast the women were walking or other risk factors for heart disease (obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, high blood sugar) (2).
The second study;
The second study evaluated 1,262 participants from the Framingham Offspring Study, with an average age of 69 years, for the amount of time they spent in active physical activity and the amount of time they were sedentary. Participants wore a device that measured physical activity for at least ten hours a day and at least four days a week between 2011 and 2014. Researchers found that higher total physical activity, light physical activity and lower sedentary time were all associated with lower risk of early death from all causes. These results remained even after excluding the results from frail participants (3).
This research team found that older adults were 67% less likely to die of any cause if they spent at least 150 minutes per week in moderate to vigorous physical activity compared to those who did not.
But smaller periods of lower-intensity physical activity also showed a benefit.
Intervals of light-intensity physical activity (casual walking, household chores) were associated with a lower risk of early death from any cause while intervals of being sedentary were associated with a higher risk of early death from any cause (3).
The take home message…
It is well known that prolonged sitting has significant detrimental effects on the human body. Sitting limits activation of the large muscles and reduces blood flow through both arteries and veins. Such factors contribute to impaired glucose metabolism and higher insulin resistance, dysfunction of the endothelium (the inner lining of blood vessels) and increased production of damaging reactive oxygen molecules that can destroy cells (2). These disorders are risk factors for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Clearly, moving the body more is a healthy goal to which to aspire.
Unfortunately, the recommended goal of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every week coming from organizations such as Health Canada (1), the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization can be a tough one for many seniors. Suggested activities such as jogging, cycling, swimming and cross-country skiing may be beyond their abilities, especially for those already suffering from adverse health conditions.
The realization that lesser amounts of lighter exercise can still provide health benefits may be a liberating one for those in their senior years. Instead of giving up before getting started, they may be inspired to find an enjoyable way to add physical activity to their lives. Simply taking more steps or adding extra active chores or hobbies to daily activities could be a less overwhelming, more achievable goal for staying healthy and prolonging life. Keep in mind though, that if you are able to reach the goal of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week, you will increase your chances to live not only a longer life but one of well-being and enjoyment into your later years.
2 Bellettiere, J., LaMonte, M.J., Evenson, K.R., Rillamas-Sun, E., Kerr,J. et al. The OPACH Study: Sedentary Behavior and Cardiovascular Disease in Older Women. Circulation. Feb 19, 2019; 129(8): 1036-1046.
3 Lee, J., Spartano, N.L., Vasan, R.S., Xanthakis, V. Higher Levels of Light Intensity Physical Activity and Lower Sedentary Time are Associated With a Lower Risk of All-cause Mortality in Older Adults: The Framingham Heart Study. https://www.abstractsonline.com/pp8/#!/9088/presentation/50