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Walk or Die - Exercise in Midlife Cuts Early Death Risks

Big Benefits Especially for Those With Health Conditions

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Updated July 13, 2014

Mature woman powerwalking with earbuds on beach
© Paul Bradbury/Caiaimage/Getty Images

Walk or die! A new study gives people in their 50s and 60s another reason to get off the couch and be physically active — especially if they have conditions or habits that endanger their hearts, like diabetes, high blood pressure or smoking.

Enjoyable Light Exercise Cuts Death Risk Dramatically

A study of 9,611 adults showed that those who were regularly active in their 50s and early 60s were about 35 percent less likely to die in the next eight years than those who were sedentary. For those who had a high heart risk because of several underlying conditions, the reduction was 45 percent.

The death-reducing benefit was seen among those who walked, gardened, or went dancing a few times a week, as well as those who pursued more vigorous activities. Those who were obese also had a lower risk of dying if they were regularly active.

The results were published in the November, 2004 issue of the journal "Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise." The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School and the VA Ann Arbor Health Care System. It used data from the Health and Retirement study conducted by the U-M Institute for Social Research.

People With Health Risks Need to Exercise

Middle-aged people with cardiovascular disease or a history of heart attack or stroke showed a large reduction in mortality risk with exercise. But the study confirmed that those who have a high heart risk are much more likely to be sedentary, perhaps out of fear that exercising could overtax them.

"Other studies in smaller or less representative groups have shown the long-term benefits of exercise, even light exercise, but this study allowed us to look across different population groups, and different levels of cardiovascular risk, and see who got the most 'punch' out of exercise," says lead author Caroline Richardson, M.D., an assistant professor of family medicine at the U-M who performed the study when she was a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar at the U-M.

"We found that across all ranges of cardiovascular risk, everybody got a benefit from regular activity, but the biggest absolute benefit, the biggest reduction in deaths, was among high risk people," she adds.

High Risk People Need Exercise

"We need to prevent people from becoming part of that high risk group, by encouraging exercise as a way to lower their weight, blood sugar and blood pressure. But at the same time we need to address those at high risk now," says Richardson

The research was based on HRS data for non-institutionalized adults born between 1931 and 1941, which Richardson calls an excellent, broad data source that represents the American population. Participants were first interviewed in 1992, and then again in 2000. At the initial interview, they were asked about their activity patterns, health characteristics, education and income levels, and other factors. They were contacted by survey staff yearly, and the current study was based on those who died from any cause during the years of the study, as verified through the National Death Index.

Did people develop heart risks due to lack or exercise, or do they exercise less because of their heart risks? It's a chicken-or-egg question. Richardson notes they go hand in hand — especially among people with existing cardiovascular illnesses who cling to outdated beliefs that they shouldn’t exercise because it might set off a heart attack. In fact, she says, the benefit of physical activity for most high cardiovascular disease-risk individuals probably outweighs the risks.

"For these people, the risk of having an acute problem brought on by exercise is small compared with the much higher risk of remaining sedentary," says Richardson. She is currently leading a VA-funded multicenter randomized controlled trial that will enroll veterans with cardiovascular risk factors and follow them for six months of walking using a pedometer, and diet and exercise counseling. She’s also planning a study funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute that will use enhanced pedometers to encourage people with cardiovascular disease to walk.

Need to Get Moving?

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Source: RICHARDSON, CAROLINE R.; KRISKA, ANDREA M.; LANTZ, PAULA M.; HAYWARD, RODNEY A. Physical Activity and Mortality across Cardiovascular Disease Risk Groups. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 36(11):1923-1929, November 2004.

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