A new study shows that it's never too late to start exercising.
Research completed on 3,500 indviduals who were an average age of 64 found that those who were able to regularly work out at moderate or vigorous levels at least once a week were three to four times more likely to remain healthy while aging compared to those who didn’t exercise at all.
“Healthy aging” was defined as avoiding major diseases and disabilities, remaining in good mental health, keeping the same level of cognitive abilities and maintaining social connections and activities.
"The take-home message really is to keep moving when you are elderly,” lead investigator Dr. Mark Hamer, from the Epidemiology & Public Health at the University College London, told the BBC. "It's [a] cliche, but it's a case of use it or lose it. You do lose the benefits if you don't remain active."
Participants in the study were all part of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, and they were tracked for at least eight years. They were asked about the frequency and intensity of their physical activity routines between 2002-2003, and then were followed up with every two years until 2010-2011.
The participants were grouped into three categories based on their activity levels: inactive (no physical activity on a weekly basis), moderately active (at least once a week of moderate exercise), and vigorously active (at least once a week of intense exercise). They were also categorized after each interview as "always inactive," "became inactive," "became active" or "always active."
In addition, researchers had access to their medical records so they could see any health problems and chronic conditions. They took tests to determine their cognitive abilities and mental health, and answered questions about how easy it was for them to complete daily tasks, to judge their level of disability.
Ten percent of the group became active sometime during the study, and 70 percent remained active throughout the study. The rest were either inactive or became inactive.
About 40 percent had developed a long-term health condition, 20 percent were depressed, one-third had some form of disability, and 20 percent experienced cognitive impairment.
However, 20 percent remained healthy agers. Those that maintained regular exercise habits throughout the whole study period were seven times more likely to be a healthy ager compared to those who didn’t work out regularly. Seniors who started working out regularly sometime during the study period were three times more likely to be a healthy ager compared to those who did not.
"Importantly, we demonstrate, for the first time, that participants who remained physically active through follow-up were most likely to age successfully, although participants who took up activity during the follow-up period were also more likely to remain healthy compared with those who were inactive throughout," the authors wrote.
The study appeared in the British Journal of Sports Medicine on Nov. 25.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that adults over 65 can exercise as long as they are generally fit. The health agency's exercise recommendations per week include 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity weekly, or a mix of both. In addition, people should do muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week.
Eighty percent of American adults don’t get the recommended amount of exercise, however, according to recent research.
.© 2013 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.