Middle-Aged and Never Exercised? It’s Never Too Late?

By Chris Centeno, MD /

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exercising in middle age

If you’ve never been a big exercise person, can you start late in life and still get health benefits? While answers to that question would be all over the map based on opinion, we have some new research that weighs in. So let’s dig in.

It’s Never Too Late!

Before we dive into this subject, this reminds me of lecturing on stem cells in the Vatican. I had just finished up my lecture with the statement that my mother had 6 boys and always wanted one of her sons to become a priest. She never got her priest, but maybe me lecturing at the Vatican would be a great consolation prize. As I was walking out of the lecture hall for a break, a Jesuit priest looked at me and tugged on his collar and said: “It’s never too late!” Hence, let’s see if the research supports that the same sentiments hold true with exercise.

You Can Reap the Benefits of Exercise Even if You’re Middle-Aged

The purpose of the new study was to compare how exercise affects all-cause mortality (death from any cause, such as cancer, heart disease, and so on) risks in various stages of life: teens (15–18), early adulthood (19–29), middle adulthood (35–39) and later adulthood (40–61). This was a massive cohort study consisting of over 300,000 participants. The results? Those who increased exercise later in life realized similar decreased mortality risks as those who maintained exercise throughout adulthood and significantly improved benefits over their inactive counterparts. For example, when looking at cancer, they found increasing exercise in late adulthood (age 40–61 group) resulted in a 16% decreased risk of cancer when compared to the inactive group.

In other words, middle-age is not too late to leave that sedentary lifestyle in the dust and reap some serious benefits of exercising!

More Reasons to Start Exercising in Middle Age

Besides cancer, what are some of those benefits of starting exercise in later adulthood? Let’s start with the obvious: heart health.

Exercise Lowers Heart Failure Risks in Middle Age

One study found that those who start exercise in middle age can lower their risk of heart failure by 23% after just six years of regular exercise. This one clearly emphasizes that exercise isn’t just for starting, doing it for a couple of months, and then stopping. The key if you are middle age and not already exercising regularly is to start exercising and stick with it. Why? This same study also found that for those who consistently exercise and then stop exercising in middle age, after six sedentary years, heart failure risks significantly increased.

Exercise Tames Chronic Inflammation in Middle Age

Chronic inflammation (the bad inflammation) builds up in our bodies as we reach middle age and beyond, making our bodies the ideal environment for disease. Inflammation can be instigated by weight gain, abnormal blood sugar, poor diet, bad genes, and lack of exercise. A sedentary lifestyle can fuel the fires of chronic inflammation, while an active lifestyle with plenty of exercise can help tame those chronic inflammation flames.

Exercise Keeps the Immune System Healthy in Middle Age

Did you realize that your immune system naturally declines as you age, and it doesn’t wait for middle age; the immune system starts to decline for most of us in our 20s? So by middle age, it’s had plenty of time to cause some problems. One study I covered showed a very important reason to consistently exercise throughout life and into middle and old age: it may slow immune system decline as you age.

Exercise Feeds Muscle Health in Middle Age

Another obvious benefit to exercising in middle age is muscle health, and this is also true for those who exercise in middle age and beyond. We’ve all seen the stories and inspiring images of elderly exercise buffs who are journeying through old age with the same physically appearing bodies they had in their 20s or 30s. This is all thanks to the effects of consistent exercise on the muscles. Exercise, particularly weight lifting, has been shown to increase stem cell numbers in the muscles, making them more genetically and structurally similar to the muscles in younger folks. Another study at the link above also found faster muscle repair and more muscle mass with exercise in older mice.

So middle-aged (or older) and never exercised? It’s really not too late to start!

The upshot? So unlike me joining the priesthood, it is never too late to begin exercising! Or at least 40-61 is not too late to hit the gym and still get the benefits. Remember, there is no drug you can take that will provide these types of health benefits. So exercise is the closest thing to the fountain of youth that we have!

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4 thoughts on “Middle-Aged and Never Exercised? It’s Never Too Late?

  1. Kim

    My neck and I upper back are unstable. I need help. I got careful and made things much worse. I was swimming a year ago. Please help. Thanks.

    1. Regenexx Team

      Hi Kim,
      Neck and upper back instability can cause a wide range of symptoms and cause other problems. Here is how we treat Neck and Back issues: https://regenexx.com/conditions-treated/spine/ To see if your case would be a Candidate for treatment, we’d need more information through the Candidacy process. To do that, please use the “Get Started ” button at that link.

  2. Nila Haug

    What about people my age of 77 and older. Discussions rarely talk about us. It seems like all doctors want to do is prescribe meds or put us in hospice.

    1. Regenexx Team

      Hi Nila,
      There are athletes of all ages, but if it’s not something that you’ve been doing regularly, beginning at 77 would need a program based on your health and with clearance from your Dr.

Chris Centeno, MD

Regenexx Founder

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications.
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