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Exercising in midlife can reverse years of inactivity

As our global population ages, the pursuit of longevity is often overshadowed by an equally important goal: maintaining a high quality of life throughout our later years. A new study offers promising insights into how midlife exercise can play a pivotal role in achieving this goal.

The importance of midlife exercise

A research team led by experts at the University of Sydney conducted a long-term study tracking over 11,000 women, providing a wealth of data over an extended period.

Their findings indicate that consistent exercise during midlife (ages 40 – 50s) is strongly associated with better physical health outcomes in later years, such as improved strength, reduced risk of falls, and enhanced cardiovascular health.

Importantly, even women who had not been consistently active in their younger years experienced significant benefits from adopting an exercise routine in their 50s. These benefits highlight the potential for positive lifestyle changes to impact our health trajectory later in life.

“Our findings suggest that to maintain good physical health-related quality of life at around age 70, one may be able to ‘make up’ for not being active earlier by becoming active in the mid-50s,” noted the researchers.

Surprising findings of midlife exercise

Women who consistently met the recommended physical activity guidelines (150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise like brisk walking or cycling per week) for approximately 15 years scored significantly higher on tests measuring physical functioning in their later years. These tests evaluate things like balance, strength, and the ability to perform everyday tasks.

Midlife exercise has the potential to counteract the negative health impacts of prior inactivity. Participants who began exercising consistently in their 50s achieved similar physical health scores to those who had exercised regularly throughout their entire adult lives. This suggests that it’s never too late to make changes that can benefit your health.

“This finding supports public health initiatives for messaging around “turning back the clock” in midlife through lifestyle changes such as physical activity,” explained study lead author Binh Nguyen. This means that, despite some earlier less-healthy choices, making positive changes in your midlife years can have a profound impact on your future well-being.

Benefits of midlife exercise and beyond

Regular physical activity plays a crucial role in combating age-related health risks such as:


Regular physical activity, especially weight-bearing exercises like walking, running, or strength training, helps build and maintain bone density. Stronger bones are less likely to fracture, reducing the risk of osteoporosis, a condition marked by brittle and fragile bones.

Cardiovascular disease

Exercise strengthens the heart muscle, improves blood flow, and helps regulate blood pressure. These exercise benefits may lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular conditions in midlife.

Cognitive decline

Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, which can help protect cognitive function and memory. Studies suggest that exercise may even reduce the risk of developing dementia.

By improving muscle strength, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, and balance, exercise helps maintain our ability to perform everyday activities independently as we age. This translates to a better quality of life and greater self-sufficiency.

Recommendations and considerations

The research suggests the following measures:

Aim for consistency

The study emphasizes that reaping the maximum benefits of exercise requires a long-term commitment. Sporadic bursts of activity, while helpful, may not provide the same level of protection against age-related health decline.

Aim to incorporate moderate-intensity exercise into your routine most days of the week, striving for at least 150 minutes total over the week.

Choose what You enjoy

Finding activities you genuinely enjoy will make exercise more sustainable in the long run. Don’t feel limited to traditional gym workouts.

Explore different options like brisk walking, swimming, dancing, gardening, or even active household chores. Variety can help keep your routine fresh and prevent boredom.

Consult your physician

Before embarking on a new exercise program, it’s essential to consult your doctor. They can assess your current health status, identify any potential risks, and help you tailor an exercise plan that’s safe and appropriate for your individual needs.

This is especially crucial if you have any existing health conditions. Your doctor may recommend specific types of exercise or adjustments to ensure you have a positive experience.

“Combined with existing evidence, this study contributes to growing evidence of the benefits of maintaining or adopting an active lifestyle in mid-age,” concluded the researchers.

This study underscores the profound impact our choices can have on our future well-being. Midlife offers a valuable window of opportunity to invest in our long-term health through exercise.

The study is published in the journal PLOS Medicine.


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