According to a recent study, keeping active is key to cardiovascular health and longevity in older adults, regardless of whether or not they exercise regularly.

Researchers from The Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences and Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, used a cohort study of over 4,200 Stockholm residents aged 60 and over.

The results of the study, which tracked participants’ cardiovascular health for around 12.5 years, were published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The findings show that keeping active through gardening or DIY projects can cut the risk of heart attack or stroke by up to 30%.

At the beginning of the study, researchers conducted a health check on participants, which included information on lifestyle, such as diet, smoking and alcohol intake, and how physically active they were.

They were also asked to report how many, if any, formal exercise classes they had attended in the previous 12 months and how often in their daily lives they participated in physical activities, such as gardening, DIY, car maintenance and fruit picking.

The researchers say that these routine activities are as good as exercise, making them ideal for older people who do not often do that much formal exercise. The US Department of Health and Human Services also supports this in guidelines for physical activities for Americans.

The Swedish study assessed the participants’ cardiovascular health with a range of lab tests and physical examinations, to check on blood fats, blood sugars, and blood clotting factor – high levels of which are linked to a raised heart attack and stroke risk.

The study revealed that those who had a generally active daily life and those who took formal exercise had a much lower risk profile for cardiovascular problems than those with low levels of daily activity.

This profile included smaller waists, lower levels of potentially harmful cholesterol, and lower glucose, insulin and clotting factor levels in men.

Those who exercised regularly and were also often physically active had the lowest risk profile of all.

During the 12.5-year monitoring period, 476 of the participants had their first heart attack and 383 died from various causes.

The study highlighted that the highest level of daily physical activity was associated with a 27% lower risk of a heart attack or stroke and a 30% reduced risk of death from all causes, compared with the lowest level, irrespective of how much regular formal exercise was taken in addition.

The study authors suggest that the biological explanations for their findings might lie in energy expenditure: prolonged sitting drives down metabolic rate to the bare minimum, while physical activity increases it.

Muscular contractions may also provide some clues. Sitting down does not require any muscle effort, which can disrupt the skeletal muscle’s normal hormone production, with potential adverse effects on other body organs and tissues.

The authors say:

Our findings are particularly important for older adults, because individuals in this age group tend, compared to other age groups, to spend a relatively greater proportion of their active day performing [routine activities] as they often find it difficult to achieve recommended exercise intensity levels.”

Medical News Today reported earlier this month the importance of putting some effort into daily activities in order to reach the required level of physical activity, revealing that those who counted housework might need to work a bit harder.