Exercise as Medicine: Exercise Early in Life to Reduce Health Risks Later

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Health experts have told us for years that exercise is good for us, but it's looking as though the benefits might actually be cumulative. A number of recent studies have suggested that the earlier in life we develop habits of healthy exercise, the longer we can stay healthy and disease-free. 

This makes intuitive sense, of course, in that exercise improves our cardiovascular and heart health. But it also seems that exercise, especially exercise when you're young and in your thirties to forties, tends to increase your body's immunity to common diseases that are associated with inactivity later in life, when you reach your sixties and beyond. This is not to say that you shouldn't begin to exercise more if you're already in your sixties, you definitely should.

One recent study has indicated that every hour that you spend sitting after the age of 60 increases your risk of disability with regard to normal activities such as dressing, bathing, and walking by 50%. Too much sitting has also been linked to increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. Another study has suggested that spending fewer than three hours a day sitting would increase most people's life expectancy by two years. But if you haven't celebrated your sixtieth birthday yet, there seem to be even greater health benefits to exercising more in the form of disease prevention.

According to research published recently in the Archives of Internal Medicine, people who had regular exercise routines and thus were more fit in middle age had significantly lower rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, lung cancer, colon cancer, obstructive pulmonary conditions, and even Alzheimer's disease when they reached their forties and fifties.

In this study, for every one-unit improvement of physical fitness on a standard scale, the subjects experienced a 20% reduction in the incidence of the eight chronic illnesses being tracked. Even more encouraging, those with the highest levels of physical fitness in their youth developed the fewest chronic conditions during the last five years of their lives, enabling them to spend more of their "twilight years" healthy rather than sick.

Another study in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society found that women who were physically fit in their 30s through 50s had a significantly lower chance of developing cognitive impairments such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease when they reached their later years. In this study, the women who reported being relatively inactive in their teenage years through their 30s had as much as a 50% higher chance of developing cognitive impairment later in life. The researchers described their findings thus: "...to minimize the risk of dementia, physical activity should be encouraged from early life. Not to be without hope, people who were inactive [in their teenage years] can reduce their risk of cognitive impairment by becoming active in later life."

As the evidence continues to mount, the inference we can take from it seems to be clear. Exercise at any age is good, but the earlier in life you start to exercise regularly, the better it is for you, so much better that you should actually consider it a form of preventive medicine.