For Americans, the average life expectancy now surpasses 78 years, an increase of more than 4 years since 1980. Unfortunately, the incidence of chronic disease is increasing as well, particularly among those who are not yet elderly. In other words, more of us are experiencing poor health earlier in the aging process and living with it longer.
A new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that we can improve our chances of healthy aging by being fit in middle age, regardless of whether we had previously exercised. This study compared the results of an aerobic fitness test administered by the Cooper Institute to more than 18,000 healthy men and women, average age of 49, and then compared the results against Medicare claim records when the same individuals were in their 70s and 80s.
They found that those who'd been least fit in middle age were the most likely to have developed serious chronic diseases (including heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's and colon or lung cancer) at an earlier age. Those who had been fit at the initial assessment often developed the same diseases but significantly later in life, typically for the final five years of life, instead of the final 10 to 20 years.
It's never too late to begin exercising, and the earlier you start, the longer you'll benefit. To move out of the least fit category, aim for accumulating 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity most days of the week. Just three 10-minute or two 15-minute walks a day can dramatically improve your chances for a healthy old age.