Regular physical activity has beneficial effects on most (if not all) organ systems, and consequently it prevents a broad range of health problems and diseases. Physical activity in older persons produces three types of health benefits:
- It can reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease.
- It can aid in the management of active problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, or high cholesterol.
- It can improve the ability to function and stay independent in the face of active problems like lung disease or arthritis.
Although the benefits of physical activity increase with more frequent or more intense activity, substantial benefits are evident even for those who report only moderate levels of activity—i.e. washing a car for 60 minutes, raking leaves for 30 minutes, or brisk walking or swimming for 20 minutes. All of the benefits of physical activity are especially important for older men and women since they are more likely to develop chronic diseases and are more likely to have conditions such as arthritis that can affect their physical function.
Regular physical activity has beneficial effects on a variety of health outcomes, effects that are supported by consistent scientific evidence. These include:
- Lower overall mortality. Benefits were greatest among the most active persons but were also evident for individuals who reported only moderate activity.
- Lower risk of coronary heart disease. The cardiac risk of being inactive is comparable to the risk from smoking cigarettes.
- Lower risk of colon cancer.
- Lower risk of diabetes.
- Lower risk of developing high blood pressure. Exercise also lowers blood pressure in individuals who have hypertension.
- Lower risk of obesity.
- Improved mood and relief of symptoms of depression.
- Improved quality of life and improved functioning.
- Improved function in persons with arthritis.
- Lower risk of falls and injury.
Additional possible benefits of physical activity (research is less consistent) include:
- Lower risk of breast cancer.
- Prevention of bone loss and fracture after the menopause.
- Lower risk of developing depression.
- Improved quality of sleep.
Research studies have demonstrated these benefits in both middle-aged and in older persons, and in men and women. Because these chronic diseases increase with age, older persons may benefit even more than those in middle-age from physical activity. A recent study of older men in Baltimore demonstrated that leisure time activity was more important for protecting against heart disease in men over 65 than in younger men (Talbot, Morrell, Metter et al., 2002
Of great importance to older adults, regular physical activity sustains the ability to live independently. Research has shown that virtually all older adults can benefit from regular physical activity. In particular, the mobility and functioning of frail and very old adults can be improved by regular physical activity. The large potential ability of regular physical activity to prevent chronic diseases and sustain active living means that an active lifestyle is a key component of healthy and successful aging.