Updated 20 May 2014

Staying active all day linked to healthy ageing

A study conducted in Sweden shows that a generally active life is tied to better heart health.

A generally active life, even without regular exercise sessions, is tied to better heart health and greater longevity in a study of older Swedes.

Based on nearly 3 900 men and women over the age of 60 in Stockholm, the study adds to evidence suggesting that just sitting around may be actively harmful, researchers say.

Lead author Elin Ekblom-Bak, of the Åstrand Laboratory of Work Physiology of the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences in Stockholm said: "We have known for 60 years that physical activity is important for the heart,"

But until recently the research has mainly focused on exercise and has "forgotten" about the background activity that we do every day, she said.

Whether someone exercises vigorously or not, it usually takes up a few hours of the day. That leaves the rest of the time for sitting still or engaging in non-exercise activities, like home repairs, lawn care and gardening, car maintenance, hunting or fishing.

Low intensity activities

For older people, who tend to exercise less vigorously than younger people, spending more time doing low-intensity activities like the above could help cut down on sitting time, Ekblom-Bak and her colleagues write in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Between 1997 and 1999, more than 5 000 60-year-olds were invited to participate in the study, which began with a questionnaire about health history, lifestyle and daily activities, as well as medical tests and measurements.

At the study's outset, people who were more active on a daily basis, regardless of their exercise levels, tended to have smaller waists and healthier cholesterol levels.

The participants were followed for the next 12.5 years. During that time nearly 500 people had a first-time heart attack or stroke and nearly 400 people died.

Least active

People who had reported high levels of daily non-exercise activity were less likely to suffer a heart-related event and less likely to die than those who were the least active.

For every 100 people reporting low activity levels who had a heart attack or stroke, for example, only 73 highly active people experienced such events. For every 100 of the least active who died, only 70 of the most active did.

"These are fascinating findings," said David Dunstan, of the Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia, "but not really surprising since other studies that have looked at this from a different angle - that is, describing the detrimental relationship between excessive sitting and mortality outcomes - are essentially showing the same thing but in reverse because there is such a high correlation between sitting time and non- exercise physical activity behaviours.

Move more and sit less

"While sitting, muscles do not contract and blood flow decreases, which reduces the efficiency of many body processes, like absorbing glucose from the blood, said Dunstan, who studies heart health and exercise.

Non-exercise activity likely prevents the general slowing-down associated with sitting, he said.

"Moderate-to-vigorous exercise helps strengthen the heart muscle and other body muscles and may help regulate blood pressure more than general activity, Dunstan said.


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