It's never too late to start exercising and – according to new research - even those starting regular exercise for the first time in their fifties can realise health benefits comparable to those they could expect if they had been exercising regularly throughout their lives.
Recommended guidelines state that adults should participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity per week. Maintaining this active lifestyle is associated with substantial health benefits, including reducing your risk of premature death by cancer and cardiovascular disease.
There have been many previous studies that looked at whether or not people who stick to a regular exercise regime can increase their health, but these studies usually involve recording a person's physical activity level at only one point in time, typically during a person's midlife between 40 and 60 years.
What hasn't been well studied is how the health benefits of exercise can change as sporty people become more sedentary, or as people who weren't active in their youth take up physical activities later on in life.
Wanting to find out if starting exercise at middle age and beyond had any impact on a person's long term health, researchers studied lifestyle and exercise data collected from questionnaires given to participants aged between 50 and 71.
Out of the 3.5 million questionnaires that were sent out, 315,059 of them were deemed suitable by the researchers to include in the study, and they monitored mortality records for each of these survey participants over the next 20 years.
Some of their results just were as you would expect – the more that people exercised the greater their risk of early death was reduced.
Unsurprisingly, the highly active group that had been involved in exercise all throughout their lives fared well when compared to those who had never been active.
Those who exercised regularly for 2-8 hours per week through their whole lives had up to a 36 per cent lower risk of dying of any cause during the study when compared to those who rarely or never exercised. The most significant reduction in this group was for the risk of dying from heart disease which reduced by up to 42 per cent for the active people compared to the inactive.
For those of us who feel like they don't have time to hit the gym every day, the good news is that even those who only got on average one hour of exercise per week still reduced their risk of early death by 16 per cent.
The bad news came for those high school sports champions who stopped competing after they left school. The data showed that any benefits – in terms of mortality at least - of exercising when young seemed to be lost if the person became sedentary as they got older.
We all know that regular exercise is good for our health but many of us who are stuck in our ways may think it's too late to change old habits. An unexpected finding within the research was that people who were not active during their younger years - but took up exercise after they hit 40 - had similar declines in their risk of dying to the gym bunnies who had exercised regularly all of their lives.
These results, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, imply that the benefits of regular exercise can occur no matter when you start even if that is in your 40s and 50s.
So for those of us who were terrible at school sports, just know that it's never too late to start working out and even a little bit of exercise is better than none.
Dr Michelle Dickinson, creator of Nanogirl, is a nanotechnologist who is passionate about getting Kiwis hooked on science and engineering. Tweet her your science questions @medickinson