Benefits of Exercise Add Up Through Life

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A little exercise can go a long way in life, according to a recent study of middle-aged British adults.

Researchers have pored over the question of whether exercise — even earlier in life — has benefits years down the road. They've also asked whether exercising at certain ages carries more advantages than others.

So far, it seems any amount of exercise boasts benefits later in life, suggesting the perks of staying active are cumulative regardless if a person decreases his physical activity with time.

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Using longitudinal data of roughly 2,400 men and women in the UK, scientists looked at their reported activity levels at the ages of 36, 43 and 53. All participants have been tracked since birth in 1946 through the Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development. For each participant, scientists also gathered information about education, occupation, history of smoking, presence of other health problems and his or her weight and height.

During the survey with participants, nurses had them perform certain fitness tests, including standing up and sitting down in a chair repetitively, grip strength tests and balance measures where participants were challenged to see how long they could stand on one leg. Each measure reflects a component of overall physical shape, researchers say.

People who were moderately active, or exercised between one and four times per month, and those most active who reported exercising more than five times per month, performed significantly better than people reporting no physical activity.

Grip strength, however, was linked to activity only in men, which researchers suggest may result from them pursuing more sports that involve using upper body strength.

There are a few drawbacks, though. First, the research group admits it could not standardize the manner in which participants were asked about their exercise levels (since the analysis of previous years was conducted in retrospect). Other factors, including differences in people's access to recreational areas may play a role, too.

As people's lifestyles become increasingly sedentary, the findings highlight the importance of incorporating some sort of regular exercise into one's schedule early in adulthood.

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The work also shows that you don't have to be an avid marathon runner to reap the benefits of regular activity. It's the small stuff that counts — participating in leisure sports, walking or workout classes. Even though domestic and occupation-related activities weren't measured, they're likely to shape a person's fitness level as well.

At present, the CDC recommends at least five 30-minute exercise sessions per week for adults.

Photo by Josiah Mackenzie/Flickr.com