Elderly men who exercise for just half an hour on most days of the week can extend their lifespan by around five years, a new study has found.
The research suggests that older men who boost their physical activity levels do as much good for their health as giving up smoking.
Although the startling findings show major health benefits for elderly men, they hold out the prospect of younger people making similar gains.
The study found that carrying out 30 minutes of exercise six times a week was linked to a 40 per cent lower risk of death in men in their 70s.
Even those who only did light exercise for just an hour a week were less at risk of dying than men who led sedentary lives.
Men who exercised regularly at any intensity lived up to five years longer than those who did not. The more time spent doing vigorous exercise, the lower the risk of death – with the risk falling by around half for those doing more than three hours a week.
The research, carried out by the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences in Oslo, is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
In the UK people are advised to do 150 minutes of moderate activity such as gardening, dancing or brisk walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise including playing sport, running or aerobics every week.
But three out of four Britons fail to achieve this.
The benefits of exercise include cutting the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and maintaining a healthy weight.
Girls doing harder exercise at age 11 have even been found to improve their science grades years later, according to British experts.
In the latest study involving 6,000 men, sedentary was classified as watching TV or reading, while light exercise was walking or cycling for at least four hours a week including commuting.
Moderate exercisers were those who went to the gym, played sport or did heavy gardening for at least four hours a week. Vigorous exercise counted as hard training or competitive sports several times a week.
Those ‘exercisers’ who did less than an hour of light activity a week had no reduction in their risk of dying from any cause. However, a minimal amount of exercise – less than an hour – could cut the risk by a third, providing it was vigorous enough.
The group that lowered their risk the most – by as much as 49 per cent – carried out the most vigorous intensity activity for more than three hours a week.
The researchers led by Professor Ingar Holme monitored the men for almost 12 years to see if physical activity cut the risk of cardiovascular disease, or any cause, and how it compared with quitting smoking.
They concluded that thirty minutes of physical activity – irrespective of intensity – carried out six days a week is linked with a 40 per cent lower risk of death from any cause in elderly men.
Prof Holme said ‘Even when men were 73 years of age on average at start of follow-up, active persons had five years longer expected lifetime than the sedentary.’
When looking at smoking habits, researchers found that men who quit between the two screenings – which were more than 30 years apart – had up to 41 per cent lower risk of death than those who remained as smokers.
‘Increased physical activity was as beneficial as smoking cessation in reducing all-cause mortality’ said Prof Holme.
The study authors said campaigns aimed at the elderly should encourage physical activity to the same extent as helping people quit smoking.
Doctors should emphasise to their patients the wide range of health problems that could be prevented by exercise, says the study.
‘More time and resources should be allocated in primary care to increase the degree of physical activity among the elderly.
‘Equally more time and resources should be used to advice on smoking cessation as well as increased degree of physical activity in the elderly’ it said.
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