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July 17, 2019 | 5 minute read

New Insights about Getting Active and Staying Active

If you are 45-65 or older and your lifestyle has been more “couch potato” than active, can adding more physical activity still make a difference in your health and longevity?

Many studies show that people who regularly do some kind of physical activity have a lower risk of cancer and heart disease than people who are sedentary. But few studies provide a longer-term view of health when active people become less active, and sedentary people start becoming more active. A new study of more than 14,000 men and women provides helpful insights.

man sitting on a field stretching his right leg

Men and women in the UK aged 40 to 79 answered questions about their weekly physical activity at the start of the study and about 3 to 4 years later. Then about 12 years later, researchers looked at whether the changes in physical activity all those years ago might be related to deaths in the years that followed.

Here are some reasonable take-home messages based on these findings combined with past research:

  • Don’t give up on yourself. People who initially had a sedentary job and did no leisure-time physical activity, but then increased physical activity in the next few years, had significantly fewer deaths over the next 12 to 13 years than those who continued a sedentary lifestyle. And this was true even after researchers adjusted for factors like smoking, alcohol, weight and diet quality. Likewise, these findings did not change based on whether or not someone had a history of heart disease or cancer at the start of the study.
  • Use it or lose it (at least partially). People who were active at the beginning of the study but then decreased activity had fewer deaths than those who started off sedentary and stayed that way. But those who decreased activity didn’t hold on to the health protection experienced by people who maintained or increased their physical activity over time.
  • Some is good; more is better. People who got the recommended average of 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week had fewer deaths in the next 12 years than people who were sedentary. And there were even fewer deaths among those who participated in the equivalent of at least an hour of moderate activity (or 30 minutes of vigorous activity) five days a week.

Aim for Progress, Not Perfection

The findings in this study make sense in the context of other research. For example, one study followed almost 200,000 adults who did not initially have heart disease, cancer or diabetes. After classifying their baseline leisure-time physical activity level compared to the recommendation for an average of 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week, researchers tracked their development of obesity, diabetes and heart disease risk factors over about six years. Compared to people initially classified as inactive, those who met even half of the recommended target had lower risk of developing obesity, diabetes or a constellation of risk factors called metabolic syndrome. Those with the highest level of physical activity – more than double the recommended target – had even lower risk.

This second study did not report on any differences in cancer incidence related to levels of physical activity. However, a decreased incidence of obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome suggests less insulin resistance, inflammation and hormone levels – and that would likely reduce risk of cancer. Analysis for the AICR Third Expert Report found strong evidence that physical activity lowers risk of colorectal, breast and endometrial cancers, with potential to reduce risk of other types, too. Likewise, the new British Medical Journal study found fewer deaths from both heart disease and cancer-related to baseline and increases in physical activity.

Practical Tips

Especially until activity time becomes a normal part of your routine, change your mindset from “finding time” to “making time.”

  • Find a fit for you. As noted in the studies above, the goal is to find a way of being active that works for you long-term. That will be far easier when exercise meets your individual preferences, rather than leaving it categorized as something you “should” do.
  • Socializing with others, Family time or Private time? What type of activity will you give you more joy, better stress relief and an easier fit in your lifestyle? You may want to focus on one of these or go for a mix.
  • Quiet or Exhilarating? For example, yoga or walks in nature can be perfect for some people. Others thrive with sports like pickle-ball or dance classes like the swing.
  • Are you more likely to stick with a walking habit by combining it with something else you enjoy? Stay safe by keeping volume low enough that you remain aware of human and vehicle traffic around you. But listening to music, podcasts or audio books can have you so engaged that you want to walk a little longer. You can download audio books for free from your local library and listen to them on your smartphone as you walk.

You don’t have to go it alone. New habits can be easier to establish with at least one other person.

  • Set a daily or weekly “date” to walk with friends or neighbors. Many friends and patients have told me that having people expecting you to show up removes a major hurdle to getting out the door.
  • If you don’t have friends or family who want to be active with you, check options at your local Y and community or senior center. Consider learning a new skill. Everyone in the class will be a novice like you, and you’ll meet new people who share an interest in being active.
  • Fit it in and Schedule it in. Little bits of activity accumulate when you park farther from the door, take the stairs, and get off public transportation one stop earlier. For many people, however, reaching the recommended minimum of 30 minutes a day will take a bit more planning. Try the Move Your Way weekly activity planner to create a personalized mix of activities that meet targets recommended for lower cancer risk and better overall health.

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