For older adults, regularly participating in weekly physical activities of any kind—walking, jogging, swimming, playing tennis—not only lowers the risk of death from any cause, but the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer, new research shows.
The study, led by researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and published last week in JAMA Network Open, highlighted the importance of regular physical activity for seniors—especially when those activities are enjoyable and sustainable.
The most beneficial activities, according to researchers, include racquet sports (tennis, squash, or racquetball) and jogging, but any recreational activity done frequently yielded favorable results.
“We found that although racquet sports and running had the largest reductions in risks of death […] many types of recreational activities are likely to have large health benefits,” lead researcher Eleanor Watts, DPhil, MPH, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics, told Health. “Finding a recreational activity that you can enjoy and do habitually is probably more important than choosing a specific type of activity.”
While getting the weekly amount of exercise each week (2.5–5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise or 1.25–2.5 hours of vigorous-intensity exercise) yielded the best results, even just some exercise lowered the risk of death by 5% compared to no exercise at all.
"Even small increases may yield substantial benefits," said Watts. "Whereas for people who are already active, further increasing activity levels may lead to further [modest] reductions in risk of death."
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Activities Associated With Lower Risk of Death
For the study, researchers used data from 272,550 participants ages 59–82, who were part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)–AARP Diet and Health Study, which was designed to look at the association between diet and cancer.
The participants had completed questionnaires on how often they participated in seven different activities: jogging or running, cycling, swimming, aerobic exercise, playing racquet sports, playing golf, and walking.
After adjusting for other factors, including: age, sex, race, BMI, and alcohol or tobacco use among others, reserachers found that people who participated in any sort of activity or combination of activities over a 12-year-period—as long as it was in the recommended weekly range—had a 13% lower risk of all-cause mortality compared to those who were not active.
In looking at specific activities, people who played racquet sports or were regular joggers reaped the most benefit: Not only did tennis players and joggers see a reduction in risk of all-cause mortality (16% and 15%, respectively), but those who played racquet sports had a 27% lower risk of cardiovascular death, and joggers had a 19% lower risk of dying from cancer.
However, while more activity may yield better results, there were diminishing returns as activity levels increased—meaning, the more activity people did, the smaller the benefit.
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Physical Activity Boasts Many Health Benefits
Essentially, the new research shows that any amount of activity or exercise is better than no exercise at all, according to Nieca Goldberg, MD, a volunteer expert for the American Heart Association, and medical director of Atria New York City.
Moving your body—whether it's through walking, running, or playing tennis—can lower the risk of death by helping prevent and manage health conditions, improve mood, and boost energy levels, Dr. Goldberg, who wasn't involved in the new research, told Health.
“In addition to these benefits, exercises raise HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) and lowers LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides (a type of fat found in the blood),” said Dr. Goldberg. “Regular aerobic exercise improves the metabolism of glucose.”
According to Stephen Pickett, MD, a cardiologist at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston, Texas, physical activity can also lower the risk of death by reducing body fat, blood pressure, inflammation and building stronger bones.
"Aerobic exercise helps weight loss and can lower blood pressure. Weight-bearing exercise can increase muscle mass and improve bone density," Dr. Pickett, told Health. "A combination of aerobic activities and weight-bearing exercise can improve cardiorespiratory fitness and lower overall risk of mortality."
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Adding More Physical Activity to Your Weekly Routine
Though the study found differences between types of physical activity and their health benefits, the differences were pretty miniscule, suggesting that any kind of movement is likely to yield similar results.
Instead of focusing on certain activities—especially if they aren't comfortable for you and your body—Watts suggests that people focus on the activities they find most enjoyable, so they can stick to a routine.
"Whether it's tennis, golf, running, swimming, cycling, or even just walking, there is a clear cardiovascular benefit," added Dr. Pickett. "The goal is to have a regimented and intentional exercise plan."
And for people who are just beginning to add physical activity to their routine, it’s important to start slow and build activity levels, according to Michael Gavalas, MD, a cardiologist at Stony Brook Medicine’s Heart Institute.
Participating in community activities or group classes can also make physical activity a more social and enjoyable experience, and potentially help people stay motivated and connected.
"Find activities that you enjoy and are sustainable in the long-term," Dr. Gavalas told Health. "Regular activity is important and getting into a rhythm will help longevity and sustainability."