A new study published recently in the British Journal of Sports Medicine finds a direct link between the likelihood of healthy aging and the amount of exercise older people take – even if they only started being physically active around retirement age, they enjoyed significantly better health than their inactive peers.

Doireann Maddock, Senior Cardiac Nurse with the British Health Foundation, which helped fund the study, says:

“This research shows us that, even if you don’t become active until later in life, your health will still benefit.”

However, she also urges people not to wait until retirement to become active, something the study appears to confirm since it found those who were already active seemed the most likely to be enjoying the best health in their later years.

For the study, Dr. Mark Hamer, of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London, and colleagues tracked the health of nearly 3,500 people in England aged between their mid-50s and early 70s for over 8 years.

At the end of the study, they ranked the participants according to overall health and found the top 19% fell into the “healthy agers” category.

The researchers defined healthy agers as “those participants who survived without developing major chronic disease, depressive symptoms, physical or cognitive impairment.”

Their analysis showed a direct link between participants’ chances of being in the healthy aging group and their physical activity – those who exercised regularly every week were around three times more likely to have the best mental and physical health than those who did not exercise.

This link was strong even after adjusting for factors such as age, sex, smoking, alcohol intake, marital status and wealth.

When they looked at the split between becoming active and remaining active, they found those who only took up exercise later in life were still three times more likely to be among the healthy agers over the period of the study than non-active participants.

For those who remained active over the period of study, the chance of being a healthy ager was over seven times that of non-active participants.

Doireann Maddock explains:

It’s well worth getting into the habit of keeping active, as we know it can help reduce the risk of heart disease along with many other conditions.

Every 10 minutes counts, so even hopping off the bus a couple of stops early or taking a brisk walk on your lunch break will help.”

She says adults should try to do some exercise every day and aim for a total of 150 minutes a week. The activity should be demanding enough to make you breathe harder and feel warmer.

Earlier this year, researchers in France wrote in the BMJ how they found exercise may prevent fall-related injuries in older adults.