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Midlife Activity a Key to Healthy Old Age

Getting regular exercise earlier in life, even if it is just brisk walking, is one of the major keys to surviving to healthy old age, according to a study published January 25 in Archives of Internal Medicine.

The Price of Living Longer

In the last century, the average life expectancy has increased dramatically, from just 47 in 1900 to more than 80 for a girl born today. As we live longer, chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer become more widespread, but getting sicker as we get older is not inevitable. One in every 10 women live to age 70 and beyond yet remain free of major diseases and physical and mental limitations. While good genes are partially responsible for these womens' ability to stay ultra-healthy as they age, healthy behaviors earlier in life also play a role.

Is Exercise the Answer?

A recent analysis of the Nurse’s Health Study sought to determine whether patterns of physical activity could predict who would survive to a healthy old age. The study included 13,353 healthy women aged 30 to 55. At an average age of 60, the women were asked about the type and amount of regular physical activity they participated in.

Women who were the most active at midlife were twice as likely to survive to a healthy age 70 than women with less physical activity. Women who did strenuous physical activity like jogging, lap swimming, and aerobics were not the only ones to stay healthy, however. Even women whose only exercise was regular walking at a moderate to brisk pace were 50% more likely to live to a healthy old age. This was true in both lean women and women who were overweight or obese, although women who were both lean and active had the best chance of healthy aging.

Regular physical activity is proven to improve your health and help prevent heart disease and stroke. However, this was one of the first studies to examine the effects of different types of physical activity, and to see how physical activity when we are middle-aged impacts our health later on.

How to Promote Healthy Aging

It’s never too late to get the health benefits of exercise, so all women should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity most (preferably all) days each week. While it is best to find an activity you enjoy, this study proves there is no need for elaborate workout routines: even brisk walking can preserve and protect your health. While 85% of Americans do not participate in vigorous physical activity regularly, nearly half walk for exercise. In addition to being physically active, you can promote healthy aging by quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy weight.

Source: Sun Q, Townsend MK, et al. Physical Activity at Midlife in Relation to Successful Survival in Women at Age 70 Years or Older. Arch Intern Med. 2010;170:194-201.


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