Good news for those of us who have yet to jump on the gym bandwagon (or treadmill.) A new study published in JAMA Network Open found that taking up regular exercise as an adult reduces your risk of death from all causes and cardiovascular diseases at about the same rate as people who’ve been exercising regularly since adolescence, compared to people who are inactive. This was true for total newbies and people returning to working out after life got in the way. Here’s how different exercise regimes make an impact, and what it means for you.

late start exercise benefits

What did this study find?

Through March 2017 to February 2018, researchers looked at data from a health study conducted between 1995 to 1996, in which adults aged 50 to 71 were asked questions about their lifestyle and workout habits throughout their lives. The researchers compared these to mortality records available up to 2011. They grouped the 312,059 participants into 10 different “exercise trajectories,” showing patterns for those who had maintained their exercise habits their whole lives, those who had increased the amount they did (whether consistently or by returning to exercise as an adult), and those who had decreased the amount of hours they spent working out as they aged. The researchers focused on “vigorous activity,” including tennis, basketball, football, cheerleading, hiking, fast walking, and weightlifting.

On average, those who were classified as “maintainers” saw a 29 to 36 percent lowered risk for all-cause mortality compared to people who regularly got no vigorous exercise a week. This group included people who had worked out for seven to eight hours a week their whole lives; people who worked out for seven hours a week in their teens, let it drop off in their early 20s, and then picked it up again in their 30s and later; and people who had consistently worked out for five to seven hours a week, with the exact amount of time varying depending on their age. The “maintainers” also saw a 34 to 43 percent decrease in their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and a 14 to 10 percent decrease in their risk of dying from cancer.

The other group that saw the benefits of exercise for health were the “increasers.” These were people who started out doing two or fewer hours of vigorous exercise a week in their late teens, who then either became committed exercisers working out seven hours a week from their early 20s, or gradually increased the number of hours they committed over a period of a few decades. If that latter description sounds like you — and you’ve always felt like you came late to the party — take heart: Those who came to exercise relatively late and increased throughout their lives decreased their risk of death from all causes by 35 percent (measured against those who did no exercise), compared to 32 percent for those who started doing seven hours from their 20s on.

What does this mean?

The ultimate takeaway is that it’s never too late to start exercising if you want to improve your health. Dr. Jennifer Haythe, MD, a New York-based cardiologist and co-director of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health and Columbia, explains, “The heart is a muscle and can always be trained like any muscle. Picking up exercise at any time has been shown to improve blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, mood, and sleep. So it’s no surprise that adopting exercise at any stage will have a mortality benefit.”

The other good news is that you don’t need to be spending hours exercising every day to get the benefits. Although people who did six to eight hours a week decreased their risk the most on average, starting at two hours a week and gradually increasing was enough to make a difference. Anthony McClain, a Chicago-based fitness consultant and host of podcast Bout That Time, explains, “Six to eight hours of vigorous activity sounds nice to me, yet studies have shown as little as 30 minutes of moderate/vigorous activity five days a week yields consequential qualitative and quantitative health benefits.”

More important than time, McClain adds, is intensity — and that depends on you. “Any activity can be vigorous, it all depends on how hard the individual is working,” he says. “Typically, the terms vigorous/moderate/mild/low are connected to the intensity at which someone performs said activity. Intensity is usually defined as a percentage of one’s maximum heart rate.” To work out if what you’re doing counts as “vigorous,” monitor your breathing. “You’ll be breathing hard and breaking a sweat, but should still manage to converse for most of the exercise,” advises Lydia Noyes, a reporter for the health section of consumer research website HighYa.com. If you have a heart rate monitor, Noyes says you’re looking to get “your heart rate elevated to zones three to four: 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate.” You can work out your approximate maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220.

If you’ve been thinking about exercise but worried that you’ve already been left behind, or that you won’t measure up, this study is another reminder that now is as good a moment as any to start. McClain adds that exercise isn’t about what other people think or expect of you: It’s about making a choice that suits you so you can reach your own goals. “A good place for people to start or restart their exercise regimen is squarely within their limits,” he says. “The key, in my opinion, is reconnecting with your physical self. Your strengths and limitations, and areas that you need to improve upon before jumping all the way in head first.” Dr. Haythe agrees: “I always advise people to start slowly so that they are not overwhelmed,” she explains. “A brisk walking routine five days a week for 30 to 45 minutes is a great place to start, and once they feel better and stronger, escalation is easier and advised.” Slow and steady is more effective than never starting out at all.

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