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Active aging: Physical activity has a direct impact on life quality

New research from the University of Cambridge has highlighted the crucial role of maintaining physical activity in later life stages. Based on data from around 1,500 individuals aged 60 and over, the study reveals that decreased physical activity and an increase in sedentary behavior correlates with diminished quality of life.

Physical activity that is beneficial to health is defined as the kind that raises heart rate to a moderate-intensity level. This activity is already linked with the mitigation of numerous health risks, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. 

The National Health Service (NHS) guidelines advise adults to engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity physical activity weekly. For older adults, the recommendation includes breaking up extended sedentary periods with light activity, or at least standing, as these practices yield unique health benefits for the older population.

How the research was conducted 

The Cambridge study is part of the larger EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer)-Norfolk study. The participants’ activity levels were evaluated using accelerometers to measure movements accurately.

In addition to assessing activity levels, the team studied health-related quality of life, a metric encapsulating aspects like pain, personal care capability, and anxiety or mood. 

Participants were rated on a scale of 0 to 1 – where 0 represents the worst and 1 the best quality of life – based on responses to a questionnaire. Lower scores on this scale have been linked with increased hospitalization risk, poorer outcomes post-hospitalization, and premature death.

The experts continued tracking the participants’ behaviors and quality of life changes for an average period of nearly six years. 

What the researchers discovered 

The data shows that, on average, participants were engaged in approximately 24 minutes less of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily, six years post their initial assessment. In parallel, sedentary time spiked by around 33 and 38 minutes daily for men and women, respectively.

A fascinating revelation was that participants with a more physically active lifestyle and less sedentary time during the initial assessment demonstrated superior quality of life scores later. In numerical terms, an additional active hour per day was linked with a 0.02 increment in the quality of life score.

On the contrary, for each minute a day less of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity registered six years after the first assessment, the quality of life score slumped by 0.03. So, a reduction of 15 minutes of such activity daily would translate to a score decline of 0.45.

Likewise, escalated sedentary behaviour also contributed to poorer quality of life, with each additional sedentary minute per day six years post the initial assessment causing a 0.012 drop in the quality of life score. This implies a daily increase of 15 sedentary minutes would lead to a score decrease of 0.18.

To provide clinical context, a previous study demonstrated a 0.1 point increase in quality of life scores is associated with a 6.9% decreased risk of early death and a 4.2% decreased risk of hospitalization.

Dr. Dharani Yerrakalva, a key researcher in the study, emphasized the significance of maintaining physical activity and limiting sedentary behavior at all life stages. However, this advice is especially pertinent for older adults as it could result in substantial improvements in physical and mental wellbeing and, consequently, overall quality of life.

Underlying mechanisms 

Dr. Yerrakalva elaborated on the mechanism by which these behavioral improvements could enhance the quality of life. For instance, increased physical activity can help alleviate pain in conditions like osteoarthritis. It also promotes muscle strength, which facilitates the continued self-care capability of older adults. 

In addition, an active lifestyle and minimized sedentary behavior can counteract depression and anxiety, both of which are closely linked with the quality of life.

Causal relationship 

The validity of these findings is bolstered by the fact that physical activity and sedentary behavior were tracked at multiple points in time, providing a strong case for a causal relationship. In other words, the evidence suggests that an improved quality of life is not a mere coincidence among more physically active older adults, but a direct result of this activity.

This essential research was made possible with funding from the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK as part of the broader EPIC-Norfolk study. Given its implications, the results could be instrumental in guiding public health recommendations for older adults.

The researchers suggest five ways to sustain physical activity in older age: daily brisk walks for around 20 minutes, gardening, cycling, dancing, and tennis. Given the demonstrated benefits of maintaining an active lifestyle, these are activities that older adults should strive to incorporate into their routine.


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