Never too late to get off the couch

Recent studies reveal senior citizens cultivating moderate exercise habits before they turn 65 can reverse the cardiac effects of sedentary ageing.
Recent studies reveal senior citizens cultivating moderate exercise habits before they turn 65 can reverse the cardiac effects of sedentary ageing.PHOTO: ISTOCK

Studies show senior citizens who exercise have lower mortality risks, countering past inactivity

WASHINGTON • Marissa Cruz Lemar Diana Bridger was a self-described "committed couch potato" when she saw a photograph of herself at a birthday party and decided she needed a lifestyle change.

"I thought 'I need to just move'," the 59-year-old said. "If I lose weight, great. If not, that's fine. But I need to get moving, just for my health."

Although she had never been active, the retail store manager signed up for a group fitness class at Orange Theory. "I had to force myself to walk in," she said.

The workout, which involved a treadmill, rowing machine and free weights, was challenging. But she was hooked. And after six months, she was confident enough to try something she had always wanted to: a 5km race. She has not stopped running since.

If you are a sedentary adult, as Bridger was, meeting the recommended weekly goals of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity may seem overwhelming.

You may even think there is no way you can counter years of inactivity. But Bridger's experience illustrates what recent research is showing us: It is never too late to start exercising and reap the health rewards.

Consider a study published this year on JAMA Network Open that looked at the activity levels of 315,059 participants aged 50 to 71 at four different points in their lives (15 to 18; 19 to 29; 35 to 39; and 40 to 61).


There are clearly benefits at all levels (of activity). The most encouraging is you don't have to be a super-athlete, and it's never too late.

SOREN BRAGE, researcher at University of Cambridge, on the wide-reaching benefits of exercising.

Researchers found that the participants who were previously inactive but increased their physical activity in later adulthood (40 to 61 years old) to four to seven hours a week had a 35 per cent lower mortality risk than those who remained inactive.

Participants who were already active and maintained their exercise levels in later adulthood reduced their risk by 29 to 36 per cent.

The fact that older adults who maintained their exercise levels and older adults new to exercise experienced a comparable lower risk of mortality suggests midlife is not too late to start physical activity.

A University of Cambridge study published this year of 14,599 adults aged 40 to 79 reached similar conclusions. Researchers found that adults with cardiovascular disease and cancer gained substantial longevity benefits by becoming more active, regardless of their past physical activity levels.

Those who had been inactive at the start and increased to an average of 30 minutes of moderate activity per day showed about 24 per cent lower mortality risk.

"There are clearly benefits at all levels (of activity)," said lead researcher Soren Brage, a principal investigator with the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge. "The most encouraging is you don't have to be a super-athlete, and it's never too late."

And the health benefits were seen no matter a participant's body mass index, blood pressure or cholesterol.

"Even if you have an established risk factor profile, you will still reap the benefits of increasing activity levels," Brage said.

The health benefits of starting to exercise later in life specifically extend to the heart and muscles, research shows.

A 2018 American Heart Association (AHA) study of 61 healthy but inactive adults aged 45 to 64 found that participants who started exercise were able to reverse the cardiac effects of sedentary ageing.

Those who exercised showed a 25 per cent improvement in elasticity of the left ventricular muscle of the heart - the chamber responsible for pumping blood out to the rest of the body, said Benjamin Levine, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine in Dallas.

Restoring the heart's elasticity prevents increase in cardiac stiffness linked to sedentary ageing.

There is one caveat, however. Because the stiffening of the heart starts in late-middle age, training needs to start before it is too late, Levine said. That means before age 65, while the heart retains plasticity and the ability to remodel itself.

"Older individuals get heart failure not because their hearts stop pumping well, but because the hearts become hard and stiff," Levine said. "There's no medication that treats that problem."

As for the muscles, researchers from the University of Birmingham compared "master athletes," men between 60 and 80 who had undertaken high-level endurance training at least twice a week for at least 20 years, with men the same age without a regular workout routine.

The study, published in Frontiers in Physiology this year, concluded that both groups had equal ability to build muscle in response to exercise.

In a statement, lead researcher and senior lecturer Leigh Breen said: "Our study clearly shows that it doesn't matter if you haven't been a regular exerciser throughout your life, you can still derive benefit from exercise whenever you start."

Bridger said exercise has helped relieve her migraines. Her back issues, including arthritis and a herniated disc, have also improved.

She rejects the idea that there is anything special about her. "I want people to know my age, and that at (almost) 60, I actually could make these improvements," she said. "If I can do it, any body can do it."

Here are tips for establishing a sustainable exercise routine:


"Some exercise is better than none," said Pedro Saint-Maurice, lead researcher for the JAMA study and postdoctoral fellow with the National Cancer Institute. If you cannot get 30 minutes a day from the beginning, progress slowly and gradually increase your exercise.

In the AHA study, for example, researchers progressively increased participants' activity over six months, ultimately reaching a sustainable practice of 30 minutes of exercise per day, four or five times a week. Starting slowly is not only safer for a previously inactive body, but it helps keep you from getting discouraged if you try to do too much too fast.


Don't limit yourself to structured workouts. "It's very important to try and incorporate activity into daily routines," Brage said. "There are opportunities for being a little active in every domain in life," such as parking a little farther away, taking the stairs more frequently or adding walk breaks to your workday. And all those small bursts of activity add up.


Include a variety of cardio, strength training and stretching, and include moderate-and high-intensity workouts to get the best impact. Multiple study results demonstrate that there are whole-body impacts to starting exercise, so incorporate all styles of activity to achieve the best results.


Exercising with a friend or family member can keep you motivated and consistent. Bridger, for example, was intimidated to start running at first, limiting her runs to night time when no one would see her. But when a neighbour learnt Bridger was starting to run, she suggested they run together. Eighteen months later, the two have shared countless miles of encouragement and support, and Bridger has completed 18 races.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 27, 2019, with the headline 'Never too late to get off the couch '. Print Edition | Subscribe