Here's a fresh prescription for seniors who want to live longer and lower their odds of dying from cancer or heart disease: Lace up your running shoes or grab your tennis racket.
A new U.S. National Cancer Institute study found older folks who played racquet sports lowered their risk of death by 16% over a 12-year follow-up. Running cut the risk by 15%.
Daily walking, jogging, swimming laps and playing tennis are some of the sports researchers looked at, but, they said, any moderate physical activity done weekly will do the trick.
"It's never too late to start," said lead researcher Eleanor Watts, a postdoctoral fellow. "So if you're inactive and you're older, you can still reap substantial rewards by increasing physical activity."
Exercise increases longevity in several ways, she said. It reduces body fat, lowers blood pressure and reduces inflammation in the body. And there may well be other benefits that future research will uncover.
Reaping the benefits of exercise is only a matter of starting, she stressed.
"Find a recreation activity that you like," Watts said. "It doesn't have to be intense. Even going for a walk for 20 minutes a day is really likely to be effective."
For the study, her team collected data on nearly 273,000 men and women between 59 and 82 years of age who were part of a diet and health study co-sponsored by AARP and the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
The data showed that people who ran, biked, swam, did other aerobic exercises, played racquet sports, golf or walked to stay active had a 13% lower risk of dying during the study period, compared with those who didn't exercise. The risk reduction varied by sport.
The type of sport also was tied to the risk of dying from specific diseases. Playing racquet sports reduced the risk of dying from heart disease by 27% and running cut the risk of dying from cancer by 19%, the data showed.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults get 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity each week, or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous activity.
Watts said doing more reduced the risk of early death even more, but the gains were smaller. You reach a point of diminishing returns, she noted.
Even getting less activity than the recommended amount has a benefit. Compared with folks who don't exercise at all, those who do get in some physical activity may lower their risk of early death by 5%, the researchers found.
Dr. Benjamin Hirsh, director of preventive cardiology at the Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., reviewed the findings.
"This evidence has been shown numerous times for patients with heart disease," he said.
But this is one of the few studies to show the benefits of increasing activity for both patients with heart disease and cancer, Hirsh said. The biggest obstacle is getting patients to change their lifestyle and eat right and exercise, he added.
"It is following the basics of diet and greater activity that matter tremendously," he said. "The real challenge in medicine is trying to get patients to change their behavior. It is one of the most difficult challenges for physicians, even more than diagnosing and treating rare conditions."
The study was published online Aug. 24 in JAMA Network Open.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about exercise and health.
SOURCES: Eleanor Watts, DPhil, MPH, postdoctoral fellow, division of cancer epidemiology and genetics, U.S. National Cancer Institute, Rockville, Md.; Benjamin Hirsh MD, director, preventive cardiology, Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital, Manhasset, N.Y.; JAMA Network Open, Aug. 24, 2022, online