When it comes to exercise, it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach, especially in later life. A new study from Harvard University has found that over-70s who undertake one brisk walk a week can slash their chances of an early death by 70 per cent.
The key to the findings, however, is the higher intensity of the activity, as simply walking the dog, window shopping or doing housework showed no effects. Upping the pace led to huge increases in life expectancy, even if only undertaken once a week.
In the past, studies have been conducted using self-reports, but this latest research was based on data collected via a wearable device. The triaxial accelerometer not only measures up and down exercise, but also side to side and front to back movements.
Professor I-Min Lee is first author on the study and a member of Harvard University's medical and public health schools. He said: “We used devices to better measure not only higher intensity physical activities, but also lower intensity activities and sedentary behaviour, which has become of great interest in the last few years.”
The research was made even more significant by its sheer size, as 17,700 women, with an average age of 72, took part. Over the course of 2011 to 2015, each of the participants wore the device for seven days, giving scientists plenty of data to go on.
At the end of the study, the researchers found moderate to vigorous activity was associated with a 60 to 70 per cent decrease in the chances of dying early. This was compared to the least active group, showing how activities like brisk walking can be beneficial.
Light intensity activity, such as housework, was seen to have no impact on death risk, although the study’s authors said it is still beneficial for overall health. Those starting out on an exercise regime should begin slowly and build up to more vigorous forms.
Professor Lee said: “Younger people in their 20s and 30s generally can participate in vigorous intensity activities, such as running or playing basketball. But for older people, vigorous intensity activity may be impossible, and moderate intensity activity may not even be achievable.
“So, we were interested in studying potential health benefits associated with light intensity activities that most older people can do.”
She summarised that the study findings are in line with guidelines for exercise that were published in 2008. They recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise should be undertaken each week. If high intensity activities are carried out instead, then this can be reduced to 75 minutes.
Alternatively, a combination of the two approaches can also prove beneficial and be incorporated into daily life. In addition, all over-70s should be doing muscle-strengthening exercises twice a week to keep the body in good condition.
It is hoped that this latest study will continue in order to gather more information about the health benefits of exercise in the elderly. Results so far, however, show that it should become part of a regular routine.