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Middle age men live longer when they exercise

March 6, 2009

Now that’s not only good news but a useful motivator on those days I just can’t get going. According to a study from Uppsala University published in the BMJ, men in their 50’s who increase their amount of exercise live up to 2.5 years longer than those that remain sedentary.

The purpose of the study was to examine how changes in the level of physical activity after middle age influences mortality. It also aimed to compare outcomes with the effects of giving up smoking. Subjects were 2205 men aged 50 in 1970-3 who were re-examined at ages 60, 70, 77, and 82 years. They completed a questionnaire about their activity levels at the beginning the study, their responses placing them in one of three categories.

The low activity group consisted of responders who spent most of their time “reading, watching TV, going to the cinema, or engaging in other, mostly sedentary activities” while the medium group consisted of those who “often go walking or cycling for pleasure”. The high activity group were those who engaged in “active recreational sports or heavy gardening at least 3 hours every week” and those who engaged in “hard physical training or competitive sport”. Other factors accounted for included smoking habits, obesity (BMI ≥30), cholesterol and diabetes mellitus.

It was found that 50 year old men in the high activity level group lived 1.1 years longer than the medium activity group and 2.3 years longer than the low activity group. Anyone keen on exercise probably isn’t too surprised at this finding. The really interesting discovery was that those age 50 to 60 who increased their activity level to high from either the medium or low also lived longest. The halved mortality rate after increased physical activity between the ages of 50 and 60 was similar to that seen after giving up smoking.

During the first five years for 60 year old men there was increased risk associated with increased physical activity compared with men with unchanged high activity. Since there were such a small number of deaths the researchers were “reluctant to place a strong emphasis on this increased risk, especially as mortality was not higher than mortality in men who continued to be sedentary”.

To reap the benefits of longevity the study suggests exercise levels have to be maintained for 10 years although the researchers believe “increased activity might have early health benefits that are collectively too small to have an impact on total mortality”. While no reason is given for the improved health and longevity that comes from increasing exercise the study does suggest factors that may play a role. These include an improved metabolic profile, changes in inflammatory and hormonal responses, gut mobility and effects on the nervous system.

It’s good to know all that hard work and sweat, enjoyable though it is, may really have a long term benefit.

BMJ online 2009, 338:b688: doi:10.1136/bmj.b688

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