Physical activity can slow the aging process and is associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality in older adults. Conversely, chronic diseases and age-related changes in exercise capacity can prevent older people from achieving recommended levels of physical activity.
A new study in people aged 85 and older shows that walking at least one hour a week can reduce the risk of cardiovascular and all-cause mortality.
These results are consistent with current WHO physical activity guidelines, which recommend that older people who are unable to engage in moderate-intensity physical activity should engage in physical activity to the best of their ability. Physical activity can promote healthy aging, but chronic disease and age-related decline in exercise capacity often prevent older people from participating in moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity, as recommended by health guidelines .
A new study shows that people aged 85 and older who walked at least an hour a week had a lower risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease than their peers who were not physically active.
Study co-author Dr. Moo-Nyun Jin of Inje University, South Korea, said in a press release:
“Identifying the minimum amount of exercise that can benefit older people is an important goal because recommended activity levels can be difficult to achieve. Our study indicates that walking even an hour a week has benefits for people aged 85 and older compared to being completely inactive. The message to take away is that you have to keep walking all your life”. The research will be presented at the 2022 European Society of Cardiology Congress in late August.
Aging and physical activity
Aging is associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases and a decline in physical and cognitive abilities. The number of people aged 65 and over worldwide was around one billion in 2019, and is expected to more than double by 2050. This increase in population aging reflects an increase in life expectancy, but it raises concerns about healthy aging. Physical activity can reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and delay the impact of aging on physical and cognitive decline. Also, physical activity can help maintain flexibility and balance in older people and allow them to function independently.
Consistent with these effects, a recent observational study that included older adults shows that physical activity levels are negatively correlated with the risk of all-cause mortality. However, chronic diseases and age-related declines in muscle strength can, in turn, limit older people’s ability to be physically active. Furthermore, sedentary behavior also increases with age.
Current Recommendations for Physical Activity
Research from 2016 suggests that most people over the age of 65 do not meet physical activity recommendations. Current physical activity guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, such as running, per week. The guidelines also recommend two days of muscle-strengthening exercises, such as weight lifting or resistance training. Recommendations for older adults emphasize incorporating a mixed diet that includes aerobic, resistance, and balance exercises to prevent falls. Physical activity guidelines also advise older adults who are unable to engage in moderate-intensity physical activity to engage in physical activity within their ability, after consulting a health professional.
The health and longevity benefits of walking
The authors of the current study investigated whether walking could reduce the risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease mortality in people aged 85 and older. The study analyzed data from 7,047 people aged 85 and older who resided in South Korea. The researchers used a questionnaire to assess how much time each week participants spent in slow, moderate, or vigorous walking physical activity. They found that about 42% of people aged 85 and older walked regularly, while about 26% engaged in moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity.
In addition, about a third of people who walked regularly also engaged in moderate- or vigorous-intensity physical activity. Notably, less than 8% of older adults achieved recommended levels of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity. The results of the study show that people who walked at least one hour a week had a lower risk of cardiovascular and all-cause mortality than people who were not physically active. The lowest risk of cardiovascular and all-cause mortality was seen in older adults who walked for at least one hour, regardless of whether or not they engaged in moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity in addition to walking.
When it comes to healthy aging, exercise is the closest thing to a miracle drug. This study reinforces the idea that even with modest physical activity, older people can reap real benefits.
This study demonstrates that the current threshold values given to define moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity in adults are not adapted to real life (threshold values have been established mainly for people aged 40 years). In my experience, most adults over the age of 85 who walk frequently achieve a relative intensity greater than 85% of their VO2 max. This is high intensity, but relative to the individual’s cardiorespiratory fitness level, which is key to prescribing the correct exercise intensity to improve fitness. The study adds to the evidence that the use of absolute thresholds for physical activity advice is less than optimal and that physical activity recommendations should focus much more on the relative intensity of physical activity practiced.
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