Individuals who are physically active are likely to live longer, but how does physical activity in older adulthood affect quality of life? Does physical activity in later life enhance overall health, including mood and cognitive well-being? A study of over 12,000 Australian men between the ages of 65 and 83 suggests that physical activity can benefit a variety of healthy aging outcomes, finding that men who engaged in high levels of physical activity were almost twice as likely to remain free of functional or mental disabilities after 10 years.
The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, followed a sample of 12,201 men in western Australia for a period of over 10 years. Participants were assessed on their level of physical activity, and those who engaged in vigorous physical activity (such as running, sports, or swimming) for 150 or more minutes per week were considered physically active. Investigators collected data on participants’ ongoing physical activity (self-reported by participants) and mood, cognitive performance, and physical function. Data was also collected on health behaviors such as tobacco and alcohol use and health status. Investigators followed up with the initial sample between 10 and 13 years after the baseline assessment, at which point remaining participants were again asked about physical activity, difficulties with activities of daily living, and physical and mental health status.
In their analysis, the investigators compared how the active and inactive participants differed in changes in mood, cognition, and ability to perform tasks of daily living without difficulty. Participants who were physically active at baseline (2,058 participants, or less than one-fifth of the sample) were significantly more likely to have survived over the 10- to 13-year period, and were significantly less likely to experience depressive symptoms or difficulties with activities of daily living. Interestingly, participants who were physically inactive at baseline but who had increased their physical activity levels during the follow-up period were also about one-third more likely to be physically and mentally healthy than those who remained inactive.
As the authors caution, the relatively high threshold for high physical activity (as evidenced by the fact that less than 20 percent of participants met the criteria) suggests than many individuals who are active relative to the general population may have been classified as “inactive,” limiting the generalizability of these findings to healthier, more active individuals. (Further, the study population was limited to older men.) Despite such limitations, these findings are part of a larger body of evidence for the benefits of vigorous physical activity (among women as well as men), and even suggest that older adults who have not been physically active but who are healthy enough to increase their activity may benefit from increasing their levels of activity.
Almeida OP, Kham KM, Hankey GJ, et al. 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week predicts survival and successful ageing: a population-based 11-year longitudinal study of 12,201 older Australian men. British Journal of Sports Medicine. (2013). DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092814