The Benefits of Exercise Add Up: Over Time, a Little Goes a Long Way

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Increasingly, evidence suggests that even moderate amounts of exercise can lead to measurable health benefits. But while you don’t have to be a marathoner to be healthy, it helps if you exercise consistently and stay active over a lifetime, according to a new British study.

Researchers reported recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that the benefits of exercise are cumulative — the more years people spend exercising, starting in early life, the more physically fit they are in older age.

The study, led by Rachel Cooper at the Medical Research Council in the U.K., included about 2,400 men and women, all participants of the U.K. Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development. The volunteers, who were born in March 1946, were asked about their exercise regimens at ages 36, 43 and 53.

The scientists wanted to see what effect leisure-time exercise habits had on three measures of physical fitness over time: grip strength, standing balance and the time it takes to stand up from a chair. The participants’ abilities were tested in 1999, when they were 53 years old, then again in 2010.

People who reported being the most active at all three ages (exercising five times or more each month) had less trouble getting up from a chair, compared with those who were either inactive or only moderately active (exercising one to four times a month). The chair test is a marker of lower body strength, power and cardiovascular fitness, the researchers said.

Those who were most physically active at ages 43 and 53 also showed better standing balance, which involves concentration and motor control.

Physical activity did not track with grip strength, however, and the scientists speculate that the reason may be that most of the participants’ leisure-time activities did not involve weight training, which is critical for the muscle development needed to boost grip strength.

The researchers found that even those who qualified as being most active weren’t exercising as much as the federal government currently recommends. As Medscape reported:

Interestingly, only 35% of people in the study who were the most active in the group at age 53 years met the recommended level of at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity 5 times a week, indicating that higher levels of physical activity may not even need to be achieved for there to be beneficial effects on physical performance.

That’s good news for those who might be daunted by the prospect of having to exercise their entire lives — doing just a little goes a long way. “This is one of the first studies to separate out whether there are cumulative benefits to exercise,” says Cooper. “These are crude measures, but over time, we hope to develop more detailed tools to measure physical activity in more detail.” Cooper and others are planning further studies to examine the associations between certain types of exercise and specific health benefits over time.