The benefits of regular exercise for everyone from childhood through old age are well known. Children who are physically active establish healthy habits and do better in school than their peers who are more sedentary. Young adults who exercise are more likely to be active as they age, reducing their risk of heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases. Older adults can maintain their memory, cognitive function and ability to complete everyday activities by improving their fitness.
Ideally, people would be active throughout their entire lifespan. What is more common, though, is that activity in childhood and young adulthood is replaced by a lifestyle that becomes increasingly sedentary over time. This can lead to a pattern of weight gain and declining fitness.
For many people the consequences may not be immediate, so there is no clear sign that the lack of exercise is having negative effects. But make no mistake: The health effects of inactivity accumulate over time, eventually leading to conditions like obesity, heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis.
Aside from the risk of chronic disease, years of inactivity can result in poor strength, endurance and flexibility. This can lead to increased risk of injury and difficulty completing work and leisure activities. This is particularly true in older adults who are more likely to experience falls, broken bones and prolonged disability due to poor strength and balance.
It is well known that strength and endurance decline with age. Fitness decreases about 10% per decade so that a 70-year-old has lost about half the exercise capacity they had at 20 years of age. It turns out that this decline in fitness is due more to decreasing activity, not age itself, so continued exercise can maintain fitness.
Resistance training can lead to improvements in strength at all ages, but the biggest gains occur in the elderly. Beyond the impact on activities of daily living – carrying bags of groceries, for example – strength training can improve bone density. This is of particular concern for women.
Bone density peaks about age 25, so women who exercise achieve greater bone density when they are young. This means they can lose more bone mass as they age before they experience fractures and other problems. Middle-aged and older women can also reduce age-related bone loss by participating in regular exercise. In fact, exercise is essential for the effective treatment for osteoporosis.
There is good news for those who haven’t been exercising. You probably know that people who exercise now are less likely to suffer poor health in the future, provided they stay active. But research also shows that people who are out of shape now but improve their fitness also experience a reduced risk of many common health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
It doesn’t matter when someone becomes active – the benefits can be realized at any age. In fact, one study showed that older men who begin a vigorous exercise program can improve their fitness to the level they were at 30 years ago. Even better, these changes can occur in as little as six months.
The bottom line is that exercise can turn back time by reversing many negative health effects of aging. Best of all, it is never too late to start. If you have fallen into a pattern of inactivity you can benefit from regular exercise no matter how old you are. So, what are you waiting for?