Here’s a startling fact: About 3 in 4 American adults don’t get the recommended amount of physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even more sobering: Many adults don’t get any activity at all, aside from what they need to make it through the day. And as we age, more and more of us stop moving. Almost 23 percent of adults between age 18 and 44 are sedentary. For those 65 and older, it’s around 32 percent.
While you likely know that long-term inactivity weakens your bones and muscles, you may not realise that it can damage your heart and brain, too. This, in turn, raises your odds of dementia and heart disease, among other conditions, and can lead to early death.
But research suggests that getting exercise can help keep these organs healthy and delay or prevent their decline. And if you regularly work up a sweat over a number of years? All the better.
“You really need to think about ways to keep moving,” says Kevin Bohnsack, MD, a family medicine physician at Saint Joseph Mercy Health System in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Everything that increases your overall activity can ward off that sedentary lifestyle,” he adds—along with the cardiac and cognitive problems that can come with it.
How exercise benefits the heart As you progress through middle age, your heart gradually begins to weaken. Its walls get thicker and less flexible, and your arteries become stiffer. This raises your risk for high blood pressure (hypertension) and other heart problems, including heart attack and heart failure. And if you’re sedentary, that risk goes up even more.
When you exercise, your heart beats faster, increasing blood flow and supplying your body with necessary oxygen. The more you work out, the stronger your heart gets and the more elastic your blood vessels become. This helps you maintain a lower blood pressure and decreases your chances of developing many cardiovascular problems.
It’s aerobic exercise—also called cardio—that really does the trick. Research suggests that consistent, long-term moderate or vigorous cardio training may be most helpful, though any physical activity promotes good heart health. “It can be anything from running to biking to rowing,” says Dr. Bohnsack. “Anything that builds up that heart rate.”
Getting in shape benefits your heart in other ways, too, by helping neutralise risk factors linked to heart disease. Exercise is associated with:
A reduction in inflammation
An increase in HDL (“good” cholesterol) and decrease in LDL (“bad” cholesterol)
Maintaining a healthy weight and staving off obesity
And though more studies are needed, research increasingly shows that exercise can boost your heart health no matter your age. For example, for one small study published in March 2018 in the journal Circulation, 28 middle-aged men completed two years of high-intensity exercise training. Compared to a control group, scientists found the exercise reduced their cardiac stiffness and increased their bodies’ capacity for oxygen use—both of which may slash the risk for heart failure.
For another study published in the August 2018 issue of Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers gave heartrate and movement sensors to 1,600 British volunteers between the ages of 60 and 64. After five days, they found that more active people had fewer indicators of heart disease in their blood. Not too shabby, boomers.
How exercise benefits the brain What’s good for your heart is generally good for your mind—and research shows breaking a sweat on a regular basis can boost brain health in several ways.
First, exercise is tied to improved cognition, which includes better memory, attention and executive function—things like controlling emotions and completing tasks. It can enhance the speed with which you process and react to information, too, along with your capacity to draw from your past knowledge and experiences.
Getting physical is also linked to slower age-related cognitive decline, where we gradually lose our thinking, focus and memory skills. “In other words,” says Bohnsack, “if you like where you are, it’s a good idea to continue to exercise because that may at least help you retain your current cognitive function.”
And though the jury is still out on whether it improves symptoms, exercise may help prevent or delay dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. For example, one 2017 review in The Journals of Gerontology: Biological Sciences found that activity was associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer