Sixty-year-olds who stayed active by gardening, doing home repairs or gathering mushrooms and berries (!) were 30 percent less likely than their sedentary peers to have a heart attack or stroke — or to die — by the time they were 73, according to a Swedish study published Tuesday.
In fact, the study found that doing such routine activities was associated with the same heart-healthy benefits as intentional exercise, like walking and running.
That’s good news for older people, who often find it difficult to exercise at the recommended moderate-to-vigorous levels of intensity.
For the study, a team of researchers from Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm analyzed data collected from 3,839 Swedish men and women who turned 60 between July 1, 1997, and June 31, 1998. At the start of the study, participants took part in a health check, which involved providing information on a variety of lifestyle habits, such as diet, smoking and intentional exercise programs.
They were also asked to provide information on how often they participated in 24 different leisure-time physical activities that are apparently typical for older Scandinavian adults. The most common ones cited by the participants were “performing home repairs, “cutting the lawn, hedge, etc,” “car maintenance,” “taking bicycle rides, skiing, ice-skating, going hunting or fishing,” and — as strange as it may sound to American readers — “gathering mushrooms or berries.”
(Although the study isn’t clear on this point, I’m assuming that the cycling, skiing and ice-skating were reported as leisure-time rather than exercise activities because they were done at low levels of intensity.)
The participants also submitted to lab tests and physical exams for information about their blood fats, blood sugars, waist circumference and other factors associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
The data gathered at the start of the study revealed that two groups of the Swedish 60-year-olds had a lower risk profile for heart disease: 1) those with a generally active daily life and 2) those who did a lot of formal exercise but who did not otherwise have a physically active life (in other words, they spent much of their non-exercise time being sedentary).
Not surprisingly, those who exercised regularly and stayed active during the rest of the day had the lowest risk profile of all.
The participants were followed for an average of 12.5 years. During that period, 476 of the participants experienced their first heart attack or stroke, and 383 died from a variety of causes (not just cardiovascular-related ones).
Those participants who were the most active were the least likely to become ill or die.
Specifically, a generally active daily life, regardless of regular exercise habits, was found to be associated with a 27 percent reduction in the risk of a first-time heart attack or stroke and a 30 percent reduction in all-cause mortality when compared to a daily life that included low levels of activity.
Interestingly, no association was found between an active lifestyle and blood-pressure levels. A higher intensity of activity may be needed to have an effect on blood pressure, the study’s authors suggest.
The study’s authors suggest a biological explanation for their findings. They note that moving around or even standing increases the body’s metabolic rate, whereas prolonged sitting drives it down to the bare minimum.
This current study has many limitations, of course. Self-reported data, like that used in this study, is not completely reliable. In addition — and most important — this is basically an observational study, which means it can show only a correlation between two things, not a cause-and-effect. Although the study’s authors adjusted their analysis for a variety of possible confounding factors, including marital status, education level, smoking habits, dietary intake of vegetables, living conditions and general well-being, some yet-unidentified factor or combination of factors — not just physical activity — may explain the study’s findings.
Still, the study adds to the growing body of research that suggests all of us — no matter what our age — sit at our own peril.
Now, if I only knew where to find some berries and mushrooms to pick.