As we move past age 40, we often reflect on the physical activity we undertook in our younger days and start to look ahead, wondering if there will be a point at which we should hang up the gym bag, or the running shoes, as we head into our half-century and beyond. In order to protect our hearts for longevity we’ve all heard, and read, that being active is a great way to be fit over 40, but how accurate were the studies? And is this true of our 50s? What about our 60s?

Those in their 40s and over, working high-pressure jobs, are often concerned as to whether physical exercise will put their heart at further risk, leading to even less physical activity as it gets replaced with late nights sat in front of a screen. Poor lifestyle choices and negative body image perceptions increase with age, and those shiny young things on social media may make us feel like there’s an ever-closing window for taking up physical exercise. Thankfully, a major study that was published last year provided us with the best evidence yet as to why, at any age, the beat must go on.

Aging man doing bicep exercises to reverse physical decline
Dmytro Zinkevych

No Excuses

If the pressures of middle age are grinding you down and have you needing reassurance that physical activity is good for the heart and soul, you’ll be pleased to hear that research carried out on 90,211 people without a prior history of cardiovascular disease, sharing different activity levels, demonstrated that those who were active, were far less likely to develop CVD or strokes, even in those heading towards 70 years of age. The report also showed that the lowest risk factors were seen in the group that had the highest levels of activity. Since those with higher activity levels are generally found to smoke less, and have healthier BMI’s, there’s no excuse to call time on working out.

It has long been thought that physical exercise provides better heart health outcomes compared to those that are sedentary, but the relationship between age and activity levels, as relates to the heart, has often relied on basic questionnaire data to provide calculations for studies. On top of this, many previous studies haven’t taken different age bands into account at all. This report, however, took those factors into account, and also used accelerometers worn on the wrist to obtain more accurate measurements.

This technology allowed for the capturing of data that many older studies had previously missed, such as activity levels throughout our day job, or other daily activities that may not have been recorded on subject questionnaires. The researchers were also better placed to remove individuals from the study if they didn’t fit the health baseline required. The report points out that these previous lapses in data may have led to uncertainty in the relationship between physical activity and healthy hearts. So, this study aimed to further clarify this relationship using participants obtained from the UK Biobank, a research resource that had recruited more than half a million people aged 40-69 between 2006-2010. At that time, participants submitted urine, blood, and saliva samples for future analysis in studies such as this one, that took data from more than 90,000 people on their physical activity levels between 2013-2015.

Group of friends past age 40 working out in the gym
Westend61 / Getty

Keep On Moving

The study, like many of those before it, strongly showed that higher instances of physical activity meant that the sample group were less likely to go on to develop cardiovascular disease or strokes, at any age. More encouragingly for fitness enthusiasts, there did not seem to be a threshold where vigorous activity (defined in the study at 40+ minutes per week) reversed the benefits of exercise. Physical activity was even found to be of more benefit in this report than the older ones that had previously relied on questionnaire-based data.

“Our findings have addressed the question of whether (previous) subjective reporting of physical activity might have introduced bias into previous estimates of the association of physical activity and cardiovascular disease,” corresponding report author Professor Terence Dwyer tells M&F. “We find that when physical activity is measured objectively, the protective effect appears to be stronger (than in previous studies), and is present across age and sex.”

Indeed, in this 2021 study, the risk of CVD and stroke was reduced even at 69 years of age via the act of physical activity. The Professor would like to see more work done on even higher levels of activity, to see if there is a threshold point where the relationship between exercise and heart health becomes inverse, but when asked if this report provided encouragement that people should undertake physical activity even as we head towards 70, he replied: “Most definitely.” Of course, you should always consult a doctor if you have any concerns about your ability to be active.

Rema Ramakrishnan, who was also a contributor to the extensive study told M&F: “I think I would like to reiterate what the World Health Organization has recommended that every move counts toward better health.”

So, now you have the reassurance you need, there are no excuses. Get out of the office and let’s keep on moving!

Muscular bearded man performing healthy aging practices with exercises

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