By Ben Spencer
Getting fit in middle age halves the risk of suffering a stroke later in life, researchers have found.
Scientists said it is never too late to take up exercise – and turning your life around even after years of inactivity can quickly play dividends.
Remarkably, they found men who got off the sofa and started getting fit in their 40s and 50s saw their stroke risk drop to levels seen among those who had exercised throughout their youth.
The findings, by experts in Norway, offer hope that it is not too late to get fit to the millions of middle-aged people in Britain who do very little exercise.
Erik Prestgaard, doctor in cardiology department at Oslo University Hospital, said even after decades spent doing little physical activity, people who change their habits in this period can dramatically improve their chances of a healthy retirement.
‘If you become fit or remain fit, there’s no difference’
‘If you become fit or remain fit, there’s no difference,’ he said.
‘That’s a good message – if you’re 50 and not fit over the next years you can become fit and lower your risk. It’s never too late to get fit.’
But crucially, his team also found that people who do not take control of their health at this point see their stroke risk soar.
Because while the 40s and 50s seems to offer a window in which it is possible for people to turn around their health, those who do not see the odds stacked against them for years to come.
The research team, presenting their findings at the European Society of Cardiology congress in Barcelona, found failing to exercise in these crucial years can have a catastrophic impact on health in later life.
Public Health England last week warned Britain is in the midst of an ‘inactivity epidemic’ which has seen exercise levels drop 20 per cent since the 1960s.
Officials are particularly worried about the 6.3million middle-aged people – 41 per cent of the age group – who do not even go for a brisk walk once a month.
Lower stroke risk by up to 56%
The research team tracked 2,000 men aged between 40 and 60, starting in the 1970s.
The participants were initially monitored for seven years to see how their exercise habits changed.
Their physical fitness was monitored using exercise tests on bicycle machines.
Strikingly, the majority of participants – 65 per cent – actually became less fit in those seven years, and only 35 per cent took up more exercise.
The researchers then tracked the group for another 23 years, in which time one in eight people suffered a stroke.
Those who had increased their exercise the most in the seven-year window were 56 per cent less likely to have a stroke later when compared to those who had become more inactive.
‘Putting in the effort will protect you’
Dr Prestgaard said: ‘The men who increased the most were not fit at all, they went from low levels and moved up.
‘A big part of these men were just getting themselves together.’
He added: ‘The findings are important because they show that even moderate increases in cardiorespiratory fitness in middle-aged men may significantly lower stroke risk. It’s a really big risk reduction – 56 per cent.’
Crucially, Dr Prestgaard found no difference in outcome between those who had been fit all their lives and those who suddenly decided to get active.
And he said it would not take a big effort for someone to turn their life around.
‘They weren’t in any kind of fitness programme,’ he said.
‘They weren’t marathon runners or anything like that.
‘So we can safely say that as a normal person you are able to improve your fitness by putting in the effort and that will protect you.’
But he warned that people who let themselves go at this time – which his study suggests the majority of people do – will be stacking the odds against themselves for years to come.
‘The findings indicate that a decline in fitness level increases the risk of stroke,’ he said.
‘Some of them probably let themselves go. They were between the ages of 40 and 60 when they started and some of them probably cycled to work and then retired and didn’t move as much.
‘You can’t let yourself go because you lose the protection that you had. If you’re in good shape when you’re 50 you can’t just stop working out and float on what you have. You have to keep it up.’
Dr Prestgaard admitted the findings were limited – because the team only tracked men, so it is not clear whether they would also apply to women.
The team also only examined stroke risk, so other health factors, such as heart disease and cancer, may benefit more from fitness at a younger age.
‘Regular exercise is known to have many positive effects’
Richard Francis, head of research awards at the Stroke Association, said: ‘Everyone can take steps to lower their stroke risk with simple lifestyle changes, like eating a balanced diet, taking regular exercise and stopping smoking.
‘Regular exercise is known to have many positive effects, such as help to maintain a healthy weight, improving mood, as well as increasing fitness.’
Professor Sir Muir Gray, clinical adviser to Public Health England who launched the organisation’s new activity campaign last week, said: ‘We all know physical activity is good for your health, but for the first time we’re seeing the effects that easily achievable changes can make.’
An estimated 100,000 people have a stroke each year in Britain – a number which is expected to soar in the coming years.
A quarter of patients die within a year, and of the survivors, half are left with long-lasting disability, which can include paralysis, speech problems and personality changes.
DailyMail on Facebook
Want To Be Body Confident? Just 30 Minutes Of Exercise Makes Women Feel Slimmer
Just 30 minutes of exercise makes women feel slimmer and more body confident, research revealed in June.
Being active for half-an-hour makes us feel stronger and significantly better about our amount of body fat, a study found.
These body-confident emotions last for at least 20 minutes post-exercise, the research adds.
Study author Professor Kathleen Martin Ginis from the University of British Columbia, said: ‘We think that the feelings of strength and empowerment women achieve post exercise, stimulate an improved internal dialogue.
‘This in turn should generate positive thoughts and feelings about their bodies which may replace the all too common negative ones.’