Light Physical Activity Increases Healthy Aging — Watching TV Doesn't

New research suggests that even light physical activity can promote healthy aging, while sedentary behavior — such as watching television — decreases the odds of healthy aging.

Research has long shown that exercise and sleep are two of the main keys to aging well, but a new study suggests that it’s not just vigorous exercise that provides this benefit — even light exercise can have a significant effect.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, found that replacing time previously spent watching television with light physical activity, moderate to vigorous physical activity, or sleep (in those getting fewer than seven hours) was associated with increased odds of healthy aging.

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In the study, healthy aging was defined as survival to at least age 70 years with no major chronic diseases, and no impairment in subjective memory, physical function, or mental health.

The results build on previous studies that suggest that physical activity and sleep are integral to staying healthy in old age — an important finding considering 8.5% of the total population worldwide is aged 65 years and older, and this number is expected to increase to 20% by 2050.

Plus, the authors warn that moderate to vigorous physical activity accounts for only approximately 4% of adults’ waking time in modern society, whereas time spent on sedentary behaviors takes up approximately 60% of adults’ waking time.

They say the amount of time spent being sedentary has significantly increased over time, which suggests a need for individuals to rethink how they spend a 24-hour period.

Study details

Researchers conducted the cohort study using data from 45,176 female participants in the Nurses’ Health Study. Over a 20-year period, scientists collected data from participants aged 50 or older — all of whom were free of major chronic diseases at the start of the research, in 1992.

Participants were asked how they spent their time, answering questions about hours spent watching TV, sleeping, standing and walking, running and jogging, and more.

After 20 years of follow-up, 3,873 women (or 8.6%) achieved healthy aging. A total of 18,696 (41.4%) had none of the 11 chronic diseases, 7,250 (16.1%) had no impairment of physical function, 19,937 (44.1%) had no mental health limitation, and 23,465 (51.9%) reported no impairment of memory function.

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They found that those who engaged in light physical activity had higher odds of healthy aging, and those who did consistent moderate or vigorous exercise had even higher odds. On the other hand, those who spent more time watching TV had lower odds of healthy aging.

They also determined that replacing time spent sitting and watching television with exercise or sleep (in those who weren’t sleeping enough) had a positive effect on healthy aging.

“These findings complement previous evidence on the association between these behaviors and mortality,” the authors wrote, “and provide important evidence for promoting active lifestyles for achieving optimal health at older ages.”

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