Exercising regularly now may work wonders later, researchers say.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated July 25, 2016
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Think you’re too young to worry about getting old? You may have less time than you think: According to a new study, physical decline begins earlier in life than doctors typically detect it—often when people are in their 50s. And even if you’re not there yet, the authors say, it’s important to take steps while you’re still young and healthy to ensure you stay that way as long as possible.

Researchers at Duke University wanted to know when, exactly, people started to slow down and experience symptoms of physical decline. So they asked 775 people, ranging in age from their 30s to their 100s, to complete a few simple tasks: rising from a chair repeatedly for 30 seconds, standing on one leg for a minute, and walking for six minutes.

Overall, younger people outperformed older ones. But consistently, the researchers noticed that participants started to have trouble with these activities—specifically with getting out of a chair and standing on one leg—in their 50s. Walking speed and aerobic endurance started to decline a bit later, on average in participants’ 60s and 70s.

Unfortunately, say the study authors, functional tests often aren’t conducted by doctors until patients are in their 70s or 80s. “By then you’ve missed 40 years of opportunities to remedy problems," said study co-author Miriam C. Morey, PhD, senior fellow in the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development at Duke University School of Medicine, in a press release.

Morey and her colleagues hope their study will provide new benchmarks for doctors to use in exams and routine physicals, helping them to identify problems in their patients earlier. They also hope to remind people that it’s never too early to start focusing on physical fitness.

“What you do in your 20s, 30s, and 40s really dictates what happens to you in your 50s, 60s, and 70s,” says lead author Katherine S. Hall, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Duke. “If you develop healthy exercise habits in early adulthood, you can most likely preserve your functional independence for a lot longer.”

In other words, says Hall, don’t wait until you’re 80 and can’t get out of your chair. “I understand that young people aren’t motivated to exercise so they can walk around the block or get in and out of the car, but those problems are down the road, and there are things you can do about them now," she says.

This message is especially important for women, who showed larger drops in physical function with increasing age. “We are sounding the alarm,” she says. “If you’re a female, this should be a wake-up call that you have a harder row to hoe."

Previous research has shown that a woman’s 20s, 30s, and 40s can be a particularly vulnerable time for healthy habits, she adds, with competing demands from work and family. And even women who do exercise regularly are less likely than men to do regular strength training—an important component for muscle function and bone health as you get older.

Hall recommends that both men and women, no matter what age, find a regular fitness program they can stick with for the long haul. Ideally, it should be a program that pairs aerobic exercise with strength training, balance exercises, and flexibility work. Research shows this can pay off: In Hall’s study, adults who reported more regular physical activity did indeed have better physical function, in their 50s and beyond.

She also encourages adults of all ages to try the same tests for physical function used in the study, to get a sense of where they are and what they might need to work on. “But doing it just once won’t give you the full picture,” she says. “It’s when you start to see changes and decline over time that you know something is wrong.”

The research was published in the Journals of Gerontology, and is part of a larger research project called the MURDOCK study. Next, Hall and Morey plan to study blood samples of the participants to see whether any biological or genetic markers also related to earlier physical decline.