Midlife Exercise May Lower Disease Risk, Study Says

Key Takeaways

  • Middle-aged endurance athletes in a recent study show better blood pressure and more elasticity in their arteries.
  • These health markers are associated with lower cardiovascular disease risks.
  • Other recent studies have highlighted additional benefits for those either continuing or starting exercise in midlife, showing it is never too late to begin a fitness routine.

Middle-aged endurance athletes have significantly lower cardiovascular risk than those of the same age who are sedentary, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology. This fact is due to two main factors—better blood pressure control and higher arterial elasticity.

The latter advantage means that the smooth muscle cells making up the connective tissue layers in arteries remain intact and pliable, allowing for proper blood flow. When these cells begin to decline, the artery walls become stiffer and plaque can build up—a condition called atherosclerosis or “hardening of the arteries.”

About the Study

In the study, researchers looked at three groups. These groups included 20 athletes ages 45 to 64 with at least 10 years of aerobic training, 20 athletes under age 45, and 20 middle-aged sedentary adults. Those who were in the first two groups regularly did activities like swimming, running, or cycling, usually at moderate-to-vigorous intensity.

Takashi Tarumi, PhD

Middle age is a critical time when people start having vascular risk factors, and that eventually increases the risk of stroke and dementia.

— Takashi Tarumi, PhD

The better blood pressure regulation and lower arterial stiffness among the active older adults were significant, according to study co-author Takashi Tarumi, PhD, of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan.

“Middle age is a critical time when people start having vascular risk factors, and that eventually increases the risk of stroke and dementia,” Dr. Tarumi says. “So, we think that our findings are important for preventing these age-related chronic diseases.”

Never Too Late

The recent study may have highlighted the advantages of athletes who have at least a decade of aerobic training behind them, but that does not mean there is a point where it is too late to get started on a fitness track, no matter your age.

According to previous research, arterial stiffness can be reversible, and that can bring down blood pressure as a result, reducing cardiovascular risk. Other research indicates that exercise can reduce that risk level by also improving blood sugar regulation, cholesterol, triglycerides, and waist circumference, which all play a role in heart health.

Hanna-Kaarina Juppi, PhD(c)

It’s possible that significant increases in physical activity may be needed as you get older, and especially as women enter menopause.

— Hanna-Kaarina Juppi, PhD(c)

For example, a study in the International Journal of Obesity found that higher levels of physical activity, even when started later in life, had an effect on these health markers. Metabolic health naturally deteriorates with aging for both men and women.

Understanding what can mitigate this process is important for healthy aging, according to that study’s co-author Hanna-Kaarina Juppi, PhD(c), at the faculty of sport and health sciences at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.

“It’s possible that significant increases in physical activity may be needed as you get older, and especially as women enter menopause,” says Dr. Juppi. “But it’s also important to highlight the importance of activity in the early prevention of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, which both increase as we age.”

Ripple Effect

In addition to benefits for the cardiovascular system, consistent exercise in middle age and beyond has been shown to have a range of other advantages. These include a lower risk of depression and anxiety, improved cognitive function, better mobility and balance, maintenance of muscle mass and bone density.

The Centers for Disease Control suggests physical activity is essential for healthy aging and maintaining independence in later decades. However, it is important for older adults, especially those with chronic conditions, to pursue physical activity safely and to do the right types. That means you should:

  • Check with a doctor first.
  • Increase physical activity very gradually.
  • Start with walking rather than vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
  • Do strength training to support bone density and muscle mass.

Regularly performing tasks that challenge strength levels can be key for maintaining and recovering strength as you age, according to Rocky Snyder, CSCS, author of Return to Center: Strength Training to Realign the Body, Recover from Pain, and Achieve Optimal Performance.

“Unfortunately, when the body reduces its activity level, the aging process accelerates,” he says. “Muscle loss, reductions in strength and power, and diminished speed are all products of reduced activity, more so than aging itself.”

Seeing exercise as an essential part of healthy aging is key, he says. Doing so, not only reduces health risks but also keeps you feeling strong and vibrant as the years roll on.

What This Means For You

Continuing to exercise into middle age can bring important health advantages not only in your cardiovascular system but also for your muscles, bone density, and cognitive health. However, it is important to check with a healthcare provider before starting a new exercise regimen.



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