Physical activity in old age: the key to quality of life

A growing body of research confirms that physical activity plays a crucial role in maintaining health and quality of life throughout our existence. A recent study conducted by the University of Cambridge highlights the importance of staying physically active later in life. Based on data from about 1,500 people aged 60 and older, the study shows that decreased physical activity and increased sedentary lifestyles correlate with decreased quality of life.

Healthy physical activity is defined as that which raises the heart rate to a moderate intensity level. This activity is already associated with reductions in numerous health risks, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.

National Health Service (NHS) guidelines advise adults to engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity physical activity each week. For older adults, the recommendation includes a break from prolonged periods of sedentary activity with light activity or at least standing, as these practices have unique health benefits for the older population.

The Cambridge study is part of the larger EPIC (European Prospective Investigation of Cancer) study in Norfolk. Participants’ activity levels were assessed using accelerometers to accurately measure movement. In addition to assessing activity levels, the team examined health-related quality of life, an index that included aspects such as pain, personal hygiene ability, anxiety or mood.

Participants were rated on a scale of 0 to 1, where 0 represents the worst and 1 the best quality of life, based on responses to a questionnaire. Lower scores on this scale were associated with an increased risk of hospitalization, worse outcomes after hospitalization, and premature death.

Experts continued to monitor changes in participants’ behavior and quality of life for an average of nearly six years.

The data show that, on average, participants engaged in about 24 minutes less moderate-to-high daily physical activity six years after their initial assessment. In parallel, sedentary time increased by about 33 and 38 minutes per day for men and women, respectively.

A fascinating finding was that participants who were more physically active and spent less time sedentary during the initial assessment later demonstrated higher quality of life scores. Numerically, an additional active hour per day was associated with a 0.02 increase in quality of life scores.

Conversely, for every minute per day of less moderate to high physical activity recorded six years after the initial assessment, the quality of life score dropped by 0.03. Thus, a reduction of 15 minutes of such activity per day would result in a decrease of 0.45 in the score.

Similarly, escalating sedentary behavior also contributed to a decline in quality of life: each additional minute of sedentary activity per day six years after the initial assessment caused the quality of life score to fall by 0.012. This means that a daily increase of 15 minutes of sedentary time would result in a 0.18 decrease in the score.

The Cambridge University study reaffirms that physical activity is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, especially for older adults. Increasing physical activity and reducing time spent in a sedentary position can lead to significant improvements in quality of life and reduced risk for various diseases.

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