Walk or Die - Exercise in Midlife Cuts Early Death Risks

Big Benefits Especially for Those With Health Conditions

Mature woman powerwalking with earbuds on beach
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Walk or die! A large study of people found that people who enjoyed exercise at midlife had a reduced risk of early death, even if they had unhealthy habits such as smoking or existing conditions such as diabetes.

The study followed almost 10,000 adults from 1992 to 2000. They were at midlife age from 50 to early 60 at the start of the study. Those who enjoyed regular physical activity were 35 percent less likely to die during the eight years of the study.

Moderate-intensity physical activity such as walking several times per week was associated with reduced risk, as was more vigorous physical activity. The reduction was also seen for people who were obese. The subjects who exercised even though they had a high risk for heart disease due to habits and health conditions had a 45% less risk of dying in the time period studied.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School and the VA Ann Arbor Health Care System using data from the Health and Retirement study conducted by the U-M Institute for Social Research. They selected participants that were a good representation of the makeup of the US population.

The all-cause death rate found in the study was compared with the participants' relative health risks. Their amount of exercise was reported on the initial interview and on yearly interviews during the eight years of the study.

People With Health Risks Need to Exercise

Middle-aged people with cardiovascular disease or a history of heart attack or stroke showed a large reduction in mortality risk with exercise. The study noted that people who know they have heart health risks are more likely to avoid exercise and adopt a sedentary lifestyle.

  But this is the opposite of what the study found would reduce their risk.

"We found that across all ranges of cardiovascular risk, everybody got a benefit from regular activity, but the biggest absolute benefit, the biggest reduction in deaths, was among high risk people," said lead author Caroline Richardson, M.D., in a press release from the University of Michigan Health System.

Did people develop heart risks due to lack or exercise, or do they exercise less because of their heart risks? Richardson noted in the press release that it's hard to say whether fear of triggering a heart attack leads people to be inactive. But she emphasized that the study shows that the benefits of exercise likely outweigh the risk.

Do You Need to Get Moving?

  • How to Start Walking: Learn the basics about how you can get started with walking for fitness and health. Use good walking posture, stride and arm motion so you can walk briskly at moderate intensity.
  • 30-Day Quick Start Walking Plan: Go from couch to 30 minutes of walking, five days per week with this beginner's plan.
  • How to Motivate Yourself with a Pedometer: Use a fitness band or pedometer to ensure you are getting enough basic physical activity each day and to motivate yourself to move more.

    RICHARDSON, CAROLINE R.; KRISKA, ANDREA M.; LANTZ, PAULA M.; HAYWARD, RODNEY A. Physical Activity and Mortality across Cardiovascular Disease Risk Groups. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 36(11):1923-1929, November 2004.

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