Most people intuitively know that the lifestyle choices they make today impact their future health. But this rather vague connection has now been quantified by science.
A new study shows your lifestyle choices in middle age have a direct impact on how you’ll spend your Golden Years. If you’re fit at 50, you’re much more likely to be healthy into your 70s and 80s.
Never before has it been so readily apparent how important it is to be fit by mid life!
Americans are living longer but not healthier lives. Although life expectancy in the U.S. is now above 78, which is up from 74 in 1980, rates of a number of chronic diseases, like diabetes, cancer and heart disease have steadily risen, and these diseases are appearing earlier in life.
The red flags are flying high – you reap what you sow when it comes to your diet and exercise patterns.
Fit 50 Year-Olds have Fewer Diseases as Seniors
Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the Cooper Institute in Dallas followed 18,670 men and women for almost 40 years in a first-of-its-kind study.1 They compared fitness levels at middle age with overall health later. The men and women who’d been the least fit in their 40s and 50s developed the most chronic conditions early in the aging process, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, COPD, kidney disease, and lung or colon cancer.
There are many studies showing physically fit people have a lower risk of dying than those who are unfit. But this is the first study to examine the relationship between chronic disease in the elderly and fitness earlier in life.2 Essentially, being physically fit “compresses the time” you are likely to spend being debilitated during old age.
It makes a difference in your quality of life. If you want to spend more of your Golden Years on golf courses than in hospital rooms, the time to start making better lifestyle choices is NOW.
In reference to the study, the New York Times writes:3
“The adults who’d been the most fit in their 40s and 50s often developed many of the same conditions, but notably their maladies appeared significantly later in life than for the less fit. Typically, the most aerobically fit people lived with chronic illnesses in the final five years of their lives, instead of the final 10, 15 or even 20 years…
Interestingly, the effects of fitness in this study statistically were greater in terms of delaying illness than in prolonging life. While those in the fittest group did tend to live longer than the least fit, perhaps more important was the fact that they were even more likely to live well during more of their older years.”
Exercise Reduces Inflammation, Improves Your Strength, and Protects Your Brain as You Age
One of the reasons exercise is so beneficial is that it reduces inflammation in your body. Persistent low-grade inflammation is a driving force for many chronic conditions, and this is especially true in the elderly for whom inflammation is a major cause of disability and loss of independence. In fact, exercise is considered an important treatment for chronic inflammation in the elderly.4
There is also increasing evidence that physical activity has a protective effect on your brain in your later years.5
Clearly, exercising throughout your lifespan is highly beneficial, and the earlier you start, the more profound the benefits will be. It makes sense, then, that if you exercise regularly, you are preventing and reducing chronic disease processes, which is exactly what this 2009 Finnish meta-analysis6 showed. Aerobic/functional capacity and muscle strength were improved by exercise training among patients with various diseases, without detrimental effects.
The authors wrote:
“This is important, as with population aging, exercise therapy may be an important means of reducing disability and increasing the number of older people living independently. Additionally, there is accumulating evidence that in patients with chronic disease, exercise therapy is effective in improving the prognostic risk factor profile and, in certain diseases, in delaying mortality. In some diseases, such as osteoarthritis, pain symptoms may also be reduced. Severe complications during the exercise therapy programs were rare.”
Why You Really Should Be “Fit by 40”
The older you get, the harder it is to become fit, especially after “the Big 4-0.” Once you enter middle age, it is far easier to maintain good fitness than to get in shape for the first time. And this is even truer if you’re a woman, as discussed by CNN’s diet and fitness expert, Dr. Melina Jampolis.7 As women enter middle age, their sex hormones begin to change.
If you’re a woman over age 40, your body produces less “healthy estrogen” and more estrone, the type of estrogen produced by your fat tissue. Estrone contributes to insulin resistance, cravings for sweets, and loss of muscle mass.
Is blaming your extra flab on your hormones a cop-out? Well, there is actually some truth to it… but it’s not insurmountable.
As you age, your resting metabolic rate tends to decline by about five percent for every decade of life past age 40, according to Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Weight Management Center and associate director of the UPMC Nutrition Center.8 Pamela Peeke, MD, a specialist in nutrition and stress at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, lists three primary factors that control your metabolism:
- Thyroid function (thyroid problems are ten times more common in women than in men)
- Muscle mass
Recent research suggests women on average will lose muscle mass twice as fast as men the same age, which can hamper their ability to lose or maintain their weight. And exercising can become more challenging for aging men and women due to AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), a muscle-building process that declines with age.
But even with these built-in biological saboteurs, it doesn’t mean you’re destined to gain weight later in life. Good nutrition and optimal exercise help counter these biological tendencies. Exercising – even briefly – can change your DNA in a way that readies your body for increased muscle strength and fat burning. In fact, exercise can boost your metabolism by addressing all three factors listed above. Additionally, it boosts your natural human growth hormone production, which is important for maintaining muscle mass as you age.
Sudden Cardiac Death Actually Less Likely if You’re Exercising
If you think about it, you can probably recall being shocked by the occasional report of a high-profile person suddenly dropping dead during exercise. These news events may scare you into wondering if exercise is really safe. But the reality is that sudden cardiac death can occur whether you’re exercising or not. A new study9 in the Netherlands reveals that, if you experience cardiac arrest while exercising, you’re more likely to survive than if your heart stops beating when you’re not exercising.
The researchers discovered:
- People with an exercise-related OHCA (out-of-hospital cardiac arrest) were found to have a 45 percent chance of surviving the event
- People with a non-exercise OHCA had a 15 percent chance of surviving the event
So, your odds of surviving cardiac arrest are three times better if you’re exercising! Additionally, none of the survivors of exercise-related OHCA suffered serious neurological damage, which was not the case for those surviving a non-exercise-related OHCA. So, if you are worried about the possibility of exercise raising your risk for cardiac arrest, these statistics should help ease that fear. Lack of exercise is much riskier for your heart and overall health than having a heart attack during exercise.
Remember, Working Out Longer is Not Necessarily Better
If you think you need to spend an hour pounding the treadmill every day in order to be fit, then you’ll be pleased to learn this is an outdated myth. Research has disproven it many times in recent years. Subjects in the latest study10 who spent 30 minutes per day exercising lost more weight than those who spent a full hour at it every day. While it may be counterintuitive, the results showed moderate exercisers got more for their effort – they lost more weight in half the time.11
Previous research has shown that just 20 minutes of high intensity training, two to three times a week, can yield greater results than slow and steady conventional aerobics performed five times a week.
Time, frequency and intensity are three important variables to keep in mind when creating your fitness program. And, while high intensity interval training is the most effective, you still need variety to reap maximum results.
Don’t underestimate the importance of proper nutrition and positive goal setting as crucial elements in achieving your fitness goals.
You might even want to incorporate intermittent fasting, which is another helpful strategy for optimizing your metabolism. Exercising on an empty stomach has been shown to have a number of health and fitness benefits, as the combination of fasting and exercising forces the breakdown of fat and glycogen for energy, effectively forcing your body to burn fat without sacrificing muscle mass.
My Prescription for Peak Fitness
When you’re planning your exercise routine, variety is key. Make sure it incorporates the following types of exercise. For a comprehensive overview, please see my Workout Plan.
- Interval (Anaerobic) Training: This involves short bursts of high-intensity exercise alternating with gentle recovery periods.
- Strength Training: Round out your exercise program with a one-set strength training routine. You can bump up the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high intensity interval exercise, please listen to my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff.
- Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body. Strengthening your core can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury, and give you greater balance and stability. Exercise programs like Pilates and yoga are great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.
- Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) developed by Aaron Mattes. With AIS, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body’s natural physiology to improve circulation, increase elasticity of muscles and joints, and enhance tissue healing and repair. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.