Getting active now a key to later-life health

A tax agent friend of mine likes to encourage his clients to invest in property. He uses the following spiel: “When is the best time to buy a house? 20 years ago. When is the second-best time to buy a house? Now!” I’m not sure how much success he has with it, but it seems for people of my age, there’s a health equivalent: “When is the best time for older people to get active? By age 55. When is the second-best time for older people to get active? Now!”

At age 59, I’m already four years behind schedule! Of course, you’re never too old or too young to become more active. And new research shows that doing so by age 55 delivers health benefits in later life – especially for women.

The study’s lead author, Dr Binh Nguyen, highlighted the study’s key finding: “Our study shows that it’s important for women to be active throughout mid-age to gain the most benefits for physical health in later life. Ideally, women should increase their activity levels to meet the guidelines by age 55.”

The research was conducted jointly by the Charles Perkins Centre and University of Sydney’s School of Public Health. Dr Nguyen is from the university’s faculty of medicine and health.

Published in the open access journal PLOS Medicine, the study adopted an approach rarely used in similar previous research. It measured physical activity at more than one time point, examining the long-term causal effects of exercise. Previous studies seeking evidence for a link have been based primarily on cross-sectional studies and short-term randomised controlled trials.

Assessing the difference being active makes

For this study, the researchers used data collected at three-year intervals beginning in 1996 from 11,336 participants in the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health. Participants were aged 47 to 52 years old when the study began.

Over a 15-year period, the participants were assessed and assigned one of three categories:

  1. meeting WHO physical activity guidelines consistently throughout the 15-year exposure period
  2. not initially meeting the guidelines but starting to meet them at age 55, 60 or 65
  3. never meeting the guidelines.

Meeting the guidelines in this study was defined as 150 minutes of activity per week.

Health-related quality of life was assessed using the physical health composite score (PCS) and mental health composite score (MCS). This is based on what is known as the Short Form 36 Health Survey, which includes 36 questions about functional health and wellbeing.

What did the study reveal?

One perhaps surprising finding of the study was the MCS analysis. It found no significant association between being more physically active and improved mental health. Putting that aside, the PCS results were more revealing. Women who consistently met physical activity guidelines throughout mid-age and those who first started to meet guidelines at age 55 both attained a higher PCS than those who did not consistently do so. 

“This study contributes to growing evidence of the benefits of maintaining or adopting an active lifestyle in mid-age,” the study concludes.

It’s doubtful many will be surprised by these findings, but they can serve as a timely reminder. For me these results provide a little alarm bell reminding me to do a little bit extra now, so I can do more later. Even minor adjustments such as  taking a 20-minute walk to the shops rather than a five-minute drive can make a difference.

As Dr Nguyen said: “Even if women start to meet physical activity guidelines in their mid-50s, [this] could have important health benefits in terms of physical health, especially in physical functioning.”

I should have made an effort to be more active four years ago. I’ll be making that effort now.

Have you maintained your levels of physical activity? What difference do you feel this has made? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Exercise improves mental health – fact or fiction?

Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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