Getting Active Later in Life Provides Major Heart Boost, Study Suggests

Older women exercising

Key Takeaways

  • Even if you have been inactive for most of your life, getting exercise when you are older may provide significant heart benefits.
  • Research also shows major effects to exercise even a decade later.
  • For those who have been sedentary, experts suggest taking it slow and finding an activity you enjoy.

Everyone knows that exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle, but if you have primarily led a sedentary life, you may feel like you have missed the window of opportunity now that you are older. But, that may not be the case.

In fact, according to research presented at the recent European Society of Cardiology meeting, becoming active later in life can be nearly as beneficial to longevity as being active since you were younger.

Although continuing an active lifestyle over a lifetime is ideal and associated with the greatest longevity and heart health, it is still possible to overcome years of being sedentary, says lead researcher Nathalia Gonzalez, MD, of the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Bern in Switzerland.

About the Study

In a meta-analysis that included more than 33,000 patients with coronary heart disease from nine studies, researchers assessed activity levels at the start and end of a 7-year period. Definitions of what constituted active versus inactive varied across the studies, but all were in line with recommendations of at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity, or a combination of both.

Nathalia Gonzalez, MD

These results are encouraging because they show how people with coronary heart disease could see significant benefits from becoming more physically active.

— Nathalia Gonzalez, MD

Researchers found that compared to those who were inactive throughout the timeframe, people who were active from start to finish had a 50% lower risk of all-cause mortality and mortality due to cardiovascular disease. While that’s not surprising—exercise has often been linked to better heart health—they also found that those who were inactive at the beginning but became active later had a 45% lower risk.

“These results are encouraging because they show how people with coronary heart disease could see significant benefits from becoming more physically active,” Dr. Gonzalez says. “It’s possible that they can even overcome several years of inactivity by taking up exercise later in life, as long as they’re willing to maintain that activity.”

Importance of Exercise

In addition to the impact on the heart, there are additional health benefits for older people who exercise. In fact, a study in BioMed Research International found that regular physical activity provided:

  • Lower risk of stroke and diabetes
  • Improved mental health
  • Delay in the onset of dementia
  • Lower risk of cancer
  • Improved quality of life and wellbeing
  • Better motor function and control

That study also noted that despite the range of advantages, physical activity levels among older adults remain below the recommended 150 minutes per week, making it essential to get people moving more.

Although both recent and previous research emphasizes that there is no expiration date when it comes to starting an exercise habit, that doesn’t mean you have to wait until you are older to get started. The sooner you begin, the more you can reap the benefits for decades to come.

For example, one study published in Frontiers in Physiology found that people who participated in an 8-month exercise study were still seeing effects 10 years later, particularly in terms of insulin regulation—which lowered the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Getting Started

No matter what age you might be—but particularly if you are older—the advice for getting started tends to focus on making exercise a long-term habit rather than a short-term resolution. Experts suggest guidelines like:

  • Check with your doctor first, especially if you have chronic conditions.
  • Create realistic goals.
  • Start with modest effort and build on that.
  • Try strength training 1 to 2 times per week.
  • Include a form of cardio exercise a few times per week.
  • Find exercises you enjoy.
  • Recruit a workout buddy who can keep you accountable and make exercise fun.

Kourtney Thomas, CSCS

Even if you begin with just 10 to 15 minutes [of exercise] per day, it can make a big difference in terms of getting you moving and in the habit of exercise.

— Kourtney Thomas, CSCS

Walking tends to be an ideal starting point, suggests personal trainer and running coach Kourtney Thomas, CSCS, who often recommends walking to people of any age.

“Even if you begin with just 10 to 15 minutes [of exercise] per day, it can make a big difference in terms of getting you moving and in the habit of exercise,” she says. “Try different routes rather than ones that are familiar, and ask a friend to join you if possible.”

She adds that breaking up exercise sessions into shorter intervals throughout the day—like taking a couple medium-duration walks instead of one longer one—can help establish a lifelong exercise habit.

What This Means For You

When it comes to heart health, it is never too late to start incorporating exercise into your everyday routine as a way to reduce risks and live longer. Even if you start with just 10 to 15 minutes a day, you will see benefits. Just make sure you talk with a healthcare provider before beginning an exercise regimen. You want to be sure that you are exercising at a level that is right for you.

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. European Society of Cardiology. Physical activity trajectories are associated with the risk of all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality in patients with coronary heart disease. A systematic review and meta-analysis.

  2. Langhammer B, Bergland A, Rydwik E. The importance of physical activity exercises among older peopleBioMed Res Int. 2018;2018:1-3. doi:10.1155/2018/7856823

  3. Johnson JL, Slentz CA, Ross LM, Huffman KM, Kraus WE. Ten-year legacy effects of three eight-month exercise training programs on cardiometabolic health parametersFront Physiol. 2019;10:452. doi:10.3389/fphys.2019.00452  

By Elizabeth Millard, CPT, RYT
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.