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Exercising for Health and Longevity

In their quest to live a longer and healthier life, many people turn to supplements, herbal remedies and other forms of complementary medicine. But one remedy for a longer life costs nothing and requires no additional studies to prove its effectiveness.

"Over the years, numerous studies have shown exercise can protect against disease and early death," says Kathie Davis, executive director of the IDEA Health and Fitness Association in San Diego. "How much exercise helps you live longer? Research suggests as little as 30 minutes of daily exercise -- such as walking, cycling, yard work or swimming -- can make a difference."

The following examples of recent research findings should inspire you to get in shape and stay in shape.

Moderate exercise can be enough

The government recommendation of 30 minutes a day of physical activity may seem modest. But a study headed by Steven Blair, senior scientific editor of the Surgeon General's report, found that survival gains achieved by going from sedentary to moderately active were greater than those achieved by going from moderately active to very active, Ms. Davis says.

Get walking

Walking two miles per day can prolong life. As part of the Honolulu Heart Program, researchers studied the benefits of walking at least two miles a day versus walking less than a mile a day. The subjects were retired men. During the 12-year follow-up, the mortality rate for those who walked the shortest distance was nearly twice as high as it was for those who walked the farthest.

Reduced heart attack risk

Exercise lowers women's risk of heart attack. In the Nurses Health Study, researchers found the age-adjusted risk of suffering a heart attack was 54 percent lower for the most active women than it was for the sedentary women. Even slightly active women had a 23 percent lower risk than the sedentary group.

Frequent walking helps

In the same study of nurses, women who walked at a brisk pace for three or more hours per week significantly reduced their risk of having a heart attack.

Obese people who stay fit live longer

Researchers in Dallas followed more than 25,000 adults in the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study (an ongoing study begun in 1970) for an average of 13 years. The investigators found that obese people who were fit weren't at a significantly higher risk of early death than their fit, normal-weight counterparts. The risk increased more than threefold for unfit obese people, however.

Leisure time exercise yields benefits

During a study in Denmark, reported in the American Journal of  Epidemiol in October 2003, researchers reported finding the mortality rate of the most physically active subjects was approximately half that of the least active subjects. 

Fitness helps after heart attack

A long-term fitness program is key for heart-attack survivors. In a follow-up to the National Exercise and Heart Disease Project, researchers compared men who had suffered heart attacks 19 years earlier. Some had participated in a cardiac rehabilitation exercise program, others hadn't. At the three-year follow-up, the exercisers had a 31 percent lower death rate than the non-exercisers.

Don't rely on the past

In the Framingham Heart Study, researchers found recent exercise provides more health benefits than exercise done in years past.

"So someone who has been sedentary for 40 years can't rely on a college athletic career for protection against heart attack," says Ms. Davis. "On the bright side, it's never too late to start exercising."