If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that regular exercise is good for our health, and that a sedentary lifestyle can have a negative effect on our physical wellbeing. National guidelines suggest that the average adult should partake in a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes vigorous exercise per week[1]in order to maintain a healthy body. Until recently, it’s been believed that this level of exercise needs to be relatively consistent throughout your life in order to reap the benefits and reduce the risk of death. A new study, however, suggests that actually, it’s never too late to start. 

Why Starting Later is Still Beneficial

The study, carried out at the National Cancer Institute and published in JAMA Network Open, examined people’s exercise patterns and subsequent death records, recording the correlation between an active lifestyle and age and cause of death[2]. Researchers looked at data from 315,059 Americans between the ages of 50 and 71 who had completed questionnaires rating their activity level in the 1990s. The study then tracked who had died and why, up until the end of 2011, taking into account other factors such as age, sex, whether they smoked, their diet, and so on[3]. Of those examined, over 71,000 had died – 22,000 of heart disease, and 16,000 of cancer[4]. Of those examined, 56% claimed they had remained consistently active throughout their lives, 30% stated their exercise levels had declined, and 13% said they started getting fit in later life[5].

Of course, those who consistently exercised had a lower risk of death when compared to those who didn’t exercise at all (around 42% less chance of dying from heart disease, and 14% less chance of dying from cancer[6]). What the researchers found really interesting, however, is that those who started getting fit in later life had a similar result (43% less likely to die from heart disease, and 16% less chance of dying from cancer). That means that even if you’ve not been active in your early life, it’s not too late to start – you can reap the benefits! Dr. Pedro Saint-Maurice, lead author of the study, explained, “if you maintain an active lifestyle or participate in some sort of exercise […] you can reduce your risk of dying. If you are not active and you get to your 40-50s and you decide to become active, you can still enjoy these benefits.”[7]

Don’t Rest on Your Laurels

Equally, however, the protective effect of exercise declines if activity levels decline. In fact, the study showed that there was little to no difference between the risk of death of those exercisers who had stopped and become sedentary, and the risk of death of those who had never regularly exercised. So, if you’re active—stay active!

Of course, like all research, the study isn’t perfect. The data it relies on are estimates only, and they’re based on personal recall and the honesty of the participants (although answers were checked for consistency throughout the study[8]). It also doesn’t show a necessary cause and effect relationship—it could simply be the case that healthier people are more likely to exercise, rather than exercising being the cause of the good health. Still, as Dr. Per Ladenvall from Gothenburg University in Sweden explains “the take-home message is that physical activity is important for a healthy and long life.”[9]

Getting Fit Now

Of course, the big question this study raises is why bother? If you can recoup the benefits later in life, why bother exercising in younger life? The answer to that is simple. The study only looked at death, and not at general health levels or sickness of their participants. Exercise is known to have other benefits—both mental and physical—that can help you live the best life you can[10]. It can make you stronger, fitter, and happier. Regular exercise will help to reduce symptoms of stress and depression, can increase your overall energy levels, it can reduce your risk of contracting chronic illness and can aid with pain reduction. It can help with memory and sleep quality too[11].  What’s more, the earlier you start, the better habits you create for later life. 

So, when is the best time to start? Right now, of course! It’s important to remember, though, not to push yourself too hard, too fast. Guidelines from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion suggest that inactive people “start low and go slow,” and that you should choose activities that are suitable for your current level of fitness[12]. Whatever you decide to do, though, decide to do it today. It may be true that it’s never too late to start, but it’s never too early either.*

*If you suffer from a chronic condition or illness, please get advice from your health care provider. 

[1]Lisa Rapaport, 2019, Starting workouts in middle age tied to longer life[online], accessed 04.08.2019

[2]Nicola Davis, 2019, Getting fit in middle age as beneficial as starting early – study[online], accessed 04.08.2019


[4]Rapaport, op. cit. 



[7]Davis, op. cit. 

[8]Davis, op. cit. 

[9]Rapaport, op. cit. 

[10]Alice Park, 2019, Better Late Than Never: Exercising Helps You Live Longer No Matter When You Start, Study Say[online], accessed 04.08.2019

[11]Arlene Semeco, 2017, The Top 10 Benefits of Regular Exercise[online], accessed 04.08.2019

[12]Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2019, Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (2ndEdition)[online], accessed 04.08.2019