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Research finds big benefit to exercise later in life

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Two seniors stretching

Between work, family and other obligations, it can be challenging to find time to exercise.
The good news is that even if you’ve reached middle age without working up much of a sweat, starting a new exercise routine later in life can offer tremendous health benefits.
New research published in “JAMA Network Open” found that people who become physically active in their later years can experience some of the same health benefits as counterparts who started exercising regularly at a younger age.
The study found that starting to exercise later in life was associated with a 32-35 percent overall lower risk of early death. That’s compared to a 29-36 percent lower risk of early death for people who maintained physical activity from adolescence.
That’s not a substantial difference and is good news for people who haven’t been active, according to Dr. Gerald Harmon, vice president of medical affairs for Tidelands Health and a family physician in practice for almost 40 years. It means becoming physically active later in life—even if it is not extremely strenuous exercise—has the potential to add years to your life.
There were 315,049 participants in the study ages 50-71 at enrollment. Researchers asked study participants to describe their activity levels then tracked the participants to determine death rates and causes of death.
The study showed that increasing or maintaining physical activity was linked with a 40 percent decrease in death due to cardiovascular disease and a 15 percent decrease in deaths related to cancer.

Never too late

Dr. Harmon says moderate and low-impact exercise such as walking, biking or swimming for about 20 minutes three time a week is all that’s needed to achieve the benefits described in the study.
Expensive equipment or a gym membership are not required. All you need to do is start moving your feet.
“Walking is such great exercise,” he says. “You move your arms and legs and you work your lungs every time you take in a breath.”
He says exercisers should strive for a target heart rate that is about 75 percent of their maximum rate (220 beats per minute minus the individual’s age). For example, a 60-year-old’s maximum heart rate is 160, so someone of that age should shoot for a target heart rate of 120 beats per minute.

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Dr. Harmon says getting started isn’t difficult. One great option is to participate in the Tidelands Health Walk with a Doc program offered at 9 a.m. on the second Saturday of every month at Grand Park in Myrtle Beach. Each installment of the free program features a presentation by a Tidelands Health physician on an important health topic before the group is led on a self-paced one-mile walk.
The study in JAMA Network Open about the benefits of exercise for older adults is similar to the findings of a study conducted by Tufts University. It showed that people ages 70 to 89 who live a sedentary lifestyle can make an impact on their mobility and overall health with just 48 extra minutes of movement every week.

Find the time

Despite the health benefits, Dr. Harmon says some people have a hard time envisioning how they will add exercise to their daily lives. It’s something he can relate to given his role as a practicing physician, vice president of medical affairs for Tidelands Health, immediate past chair of the American Medical Association and appointee to a major federal board that helps improve highway safety.
“A lot of my patients will tell me they don’t have the time to exercise,” he says. “I tell myself and my patients you have to steal that time in five-, ten- or 20-minute increments.”
People whose jobs are sedentary and even those who perform physical activities as part of their work can benefit from exercise, Dr. Harmon says. Such activity can provide a psychological boost and help avoid injuries from repetitive activities.
Adding exercise to your routine doesn’t have to be expensive, Dr. Harmon says.
“I can’t think of anything that has a better return on investment of your time,” he says.

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