Can You Still Get the Benefits of Exercise if You Start Later in Life?

image of a large group of people of various ages working out doing a step aerobics class in a gym. Exercise has many benefits and may lower the risk of dying prematurely.

By now, you’re probably aware that exercise offers substantial health benefits. In fact, there’s no organ in your body that doesn’t derive some benefit from regular workouts. If that’s not enough to convince, you maybe this will. Studies link regular physical activity with greater longevity and lowering the risk of dying prematurely. In fact, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that performing ANY exercise on a weekly basis was associated with a 20% reduction in the risk of dying.

The study showed even MORE benefits for those who met the recommended exercises guidelines – a substantial 31% reduction in mortality. Mortality risk also dropped with increasing exercise volume before plateauing at 3 to 5 times the recommended amount of exercise. Plus, there was no evidence of harm even among highly active individuals who got 10 times the physical activity recommendations, as established by the Office Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Does following a stringent exercise program sound overwhelming? Fortunately, you don’t need to do extreme amounts of exercise to get benefits. However, it is important to make exercise a regular part of your routine as you age. But, what if you’ve procrastinated for years and you’re now in your 50’s and want to enjoy the health benefits exercise offers. Can you still get the perks exercise offers? Research suggests that you can still enjoy a reduction in mortality even if you start later in life.

Cardiovascular Health and Exercise

One of the reasons people work out aerobically is to boost their aerobic capacity, the ability to the heart and lungs to deliver maximal oxygen to cells and tissues. By increasing oxygen delivery, muscle cells are capable of producing more ATP, a cell’s energy currency. This leads to greater stamina and endurance.  It also says something about your mortality risk. Studies show a low aerobic capacity is linked with greater mortality and earlier death. In fact, in a study of middle-aged and older men, reduced aerobic capacity was associated with higher mortality independent of other risk factors for early death.  In fact, it was second only to smoking as a risk factor for early death.  So, being out of shape from an aerobic standpoint boosts the risk of dying prematurely.

Here’s the good news. Even if you’ve waited until middle age or later to start doing aerobic exercise, you can still enjoy substantial benefits by exercising. In one study, researchers followed participants with an average age of 53. The study participants had been couch potatoes for many years, as too many people are once they reach middle age. But, all is not lost. With an aerobic training program, the participants were able to boost their aerobic capacity by 18%. That’s enough to substantially improve endurance and lower mortality. The elasticity of their heart also improved by 25%. Higher elasticity makes the heart a more efficient pump.

This isn’t the first study to show such a link. Previous studies have found a correlation between dying early and poor aerobic capacity. This is apparent in older populations as well as younger people. In fact, a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology revealed a higher risk of mortality in older adolescents who were less fit. So, the risk seems to apply to all ages. It’s reassuring to know that even if you start working out later in life, you can still improve your aerobic capacity and lower the risk of dying prematurely.

Risk Of Dying Prematurely: Lifespan versus Healthspan

It’s not just how long we live – quality of life matters too. Scientists have coined a term for years of life where we remain healthy and functional – health span. The goal, of course, is to spend the latter years of life doing things we enjoy rather than confined to a house or nursing home because we can’t easily get around. Exercise bolsters health span as well so that we spend most of our life fully functional. That’s what we want!

Healthy Aging and Health Span

What role does exercise play in maximizing health span? To do the things you enjoy at any age, you need sufficient bone and muscle mass as well as muscle strength. Up until the age of 30, you have a certain quantity of muscle mass, but unless you work your muscles against resistance, you lose muscle and bone at an increasing rate after mid-life. As muscle and bone dwindle, the ability to do the things you enjoy also diminishes. Plus, the risk of osteoporosis and fractures goes up.

Also, retaining muscle mass is crucial for metabolic health. Having more muscle on your body and less fat improves the way insulin functions and helps you avoid the health problems that go with insulin resistance. We’re now in the midst of a growing epidemic of “diabesity,” a term that describes the strong link between type 2 diabetes and obesity. Exercise can help us get a handle on this serious health issue. A study showed that lifting weights five times weekly lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes by 33% and by 60% in people who weight train and do aerobic exercise.

The Bottom Line

It doesn’t matter what age you are – exercise can help you slow the aging process and be more functional through life. It may help you live longer, but more importantly, it improves the quality of life and health span. Aerobic and strength training each plays a different role in keeping your body as youthful as possible. Aerobic exercise gives you the stamina you need to enjoy activities without feeling winded and tired while strength training gives you the strength and power to get around and function optimally. Both are important.



JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Jun;175(6):959-67. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.0533.
Eur J Prev Cardiol. 2016 Sep;23(14):1557-64. doi: 10.1177/2047487316655466. Epub 2016 Jul 26.
WashingtonPost.com. “Middle Age is Not Too Late to Increase Cardiac Fitness”
Health.gov. “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans”
International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 45, Issue 4, 1 August 2016, Pages 1159–1168, https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyv321


Related Articles:

Exercise Doesn’t Just Improve Lifespan – It Enhances Health Span

4 Reasons We Lose Strength as We Age

New Evidence Shows that Exercise Slows the Aging Process – and in an Unexpected Way


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