Midlife is not too late to start exercising and reaping the benefits

An encouraging study led by Dr Mark Hamer at my old College – University College London – suggests that it is never too late to start exercising and accrue the protective benefits against heart problems. In a study of over 4000 men and women with an average age of 49 years from the Whitehall II cohort study, their research showed that those who had been exercising regularly seemed to show lower markers of inflammation in their blood assays over 10 years of follow-up. This is important, because inflammation in the body tends to increase as we get older, and this inflammation has been identified as a risk in developing heart disease. As well as confirming the well-known link between exercise and improved heart health, this study seems to be the first to identify the anti-inflammatory effects of exercise as the possible mediating mechanism for these benefits.

The good news in this study is that the level of exercise needed to receive these protective benefits didn’t seem to be all that taxing. A mere 2.5 hours of moderate activity was all that was required to show the associated reduction in inflammatory markers. That means, you don’t have to be chained to a treadmill at the gym – brisk walks that raise a sweat count, as do activities such as gardening and mowing the lawn etc. Aim for around 120 beats per minute or slightly higher. However, its worth noting that people who stuck to their exercise plan for the full 10 years seemed to get the most benefit. Commitment to exercise as a lifestyle still seems to be the best route to wellbeing.

Some caution is still needed in interpreting the results of the study. The research relies upon people reporting their own levels of physical activity, and we tend to over-report this when asked. And the study also looked more at heart problems rather than heart disease itself. I’d be tempted to say that more research is needed, but there are other views on that. Anyway, my view is these findings are a great launchpad to take action.

So, whatever your age, if you’ve been inspired by the Olympics to become more physically active and to step up your exercise, here’s another good reason to do so. Remember though, if you haven’t been so physically active in a while, take things slow and steady. That way, your muscles, heart and lungs can get used to working a bit harder, you won’t feel so bad in the day or two following exercise, and you’ll be much more likely to feel like giving it another go in the following days, weeks and months.

Have fun!

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