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Study: Real Benefit of Exercise After 50 Not Surviving But Thriving

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If you exercise in the hopes of reaching your 100th birthday, I've got bad news for you: A large new study of older adults found being physically fit after 50 was not associated with longer overall lifespan. It was, however, linked with less chronic disease - including heart trouble, diabetes, Alzheimer's, kidney problems, lung cancer and colon cancer - as participants aged.

The study, published yesterday in the Archives of Internal Medicine, is based on data from 18,670 men and women who turned 50 in 1984. All participants started the study without any major health conditions or chronic diseases. Once participants turned 65, researchers tracked their health (via Medicare claims) for the next 10 years.

Ultimately, those who were in the top 20 percent for fitness level at the study's start were less likely to develop any chronic diseases, less likely to have multiple chronic diseases and were older when problems did develop than those in the lowest fitness categories. Fitness level was measured by how long and fast participants could run on a treadmill.

In rough terms, a middle-aged man who can run an 8-minute mile and a middle-aged woman who can run a 10-minute mils would fall into the top 20 percent for fitness, lead author Jarrett Berry told Health Day.

But so much for survival of the fittest: At every age, those in top form were not much less likely to die than couch potato peers. The researchers said this suggests midlife fitness "is associated with the compression of morbidity in later life." For those less fit at 50, death may come at the end of a long period of gradual health decline, while for the highly fit its more likely to come suddenly or at the end of a brief illness, preceded by relative health.

In a commentary published alongside the study,  Diane E. Bild of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute said the the research demonstrates a relatively new possibility for aging:  Thriving of the fittest. Older adults may not be able to prolong their lives through exercise and diet, but they can prolong the amount of time they spend in good health.

Tuesday Quick Hits: 

  • 401(k) revival continues. New data shows that the number of employers offering 401(k) matches is back to pre-recession levels. In 2011, 73 percent of companies offering employee 401(k) plans provided a matching contribution, up from 68 percent in 2010 and 72 percent in 2008.

Photo: Moxie Productions/Blend Images/Getty Images

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