Why women need to get active by age 55

Wednesday, 08 May, 2024

Why women need to get active by age 55

A new study has linked activity levels in middle age with improved physical health in later life.

The research from Charles Perkins Centre and University of Sydney’s School of Public Health — published in PLOS Medicine open-access journal — assessed more than 10,000 Australian women.

It showed a significant link between regular exercise during mid-age and physical health later in life, even when the exercise routine was not started until their mid-50s.

“Our study shows that it’s important for women to be active throughout mid-age to gain the most benefits for physical health in later life. Ideally, women should increase their activity levels to meet the guidelines by age 55,” said lead author Dr Binh Nguyen, from the Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Sydney.

Conducting a longitudinal study

The evidence for an association between physical activity and health-related quality of life has been based primarily on cross-sectional studies and short-term randomised controlled trials. Few longitudinal studies have measured physical activity at more than one time point and examined the long-term causal effects of exercise.

In the new study, researchers used data collected at three-year intervals beginning in 1996 from 11,336 participants in the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health. The study participants were 47 to 52 years old when the study began.

Participants were classified as either meeting WHO physical activity guidelines (150 minutes of activity a week) consistently throughout the 15-year exposure period; not initially meeting the guidelines but starting to meet them at age 55, 60 or 65; or never meeting the guidelines. Health-related quality of life was assessed using the physical health composite score (PCS) and mental health composite score (MCS) from the Short Form 36 Health Survey, which included 36 questions about functional health and wellbeing.

What were the study findings?

On average, women who consistently met physical activity guidelines throughout mid-age and those who first started to meet guidelines at age 55 had a three-point higher PCS — 46.93 and 46.96 respectively. Those that did not consistently meet physical activity guidelines throughout mid-age returned a lower PCS, 43.90.

The effect of physical activity on the PCS was significant even after controlling for socioeconomic factors and pre-existing health diagnoses. However, there was no significant association between physical activity and mental health composite score (MCS).

“Combined with existing evidence, this study contributes to growing evidence of the benefits of maintaining or adopting an active lifestyle in mid-age,” said the authors.

“An important public health message is that being active for as many years as possible, even if women start to meet physical activity guidelines in their mid-50s, could have important health benefits in terms of physical health, especially in physical functioning,” Nguyen said.

“Overall, the findings from this study highlight the importance of being physically active for as long as possible to gain the most benefits for quality of life, especially in relation to physical health.”

Image credit: iStock.com/PeopleImages

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