Why it’s never too late to start exercising, study says

After retiring from a desk job, Nancy Burnham was diagnosed with heart disease and asthma.

She was overweight and, for her whole life, had gotten little to no exercise.

Then, one day, she went to a shopping plaza and instead of steering the car left to buy groceries, she turned right, toward a gym. That turn of the wheel changed everything.

In this file photo, personal trainer Nancy Burnham prepares to lift weights at a CrossFit Burnham’s journey to health began at ge 61, when she stepped into a gym for the first time in her life. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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At the age of 61, Burnham began her first workout routine. Little by little, she lost weight, strengthened her core muscles and felt like a new person. Within about a year of starting her exercise regimen, she stopped taking several medications, including pills for asthma, high cholesterol and depression.

A major new study confirms what Burnham knows all too well: It’s never too late to begin exercising.

In the study, which was published in JAMA Network Open, researchers tracked the health and lifetime exercise habits of more than 315,000 members of the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons).

The researchers found that folks who were sedentary and started exercising later in life – in their 40s, 50s, or even at 61 — reduced their risk of an early death about just as much as people who had been exercising their entire lives.

Pedro F. Saint-Maurice, from the National Cancer Institute, and colleagues found that people who said they exercised anywhere from two to eight hours a week at various time periods in their lives had a 29 percent to 36 percent lower risk of dying during the study period compared to those who rarely or never exercised. But here’s the good news, which surprised even researchers: Those who were inactive in their younger years but started an exercise regimen later, in their 40s and 50s, saw almost the same declines in their risk of dying early.

This was true even when researchers took into account smoking, alcohol consumption and other factors that would influence mortality.

Exercising later in life also reduced the odds of dying from cancer and heart disease, according to the study.

The bottom line is, even if you’ve been a couch potato well into middle age, it’s not too late to get on the right path, Saint-Maurice said.

Meanwhile, the study also found that for those who exercised regularly in their youth, or later in life, but then stopped during their older years nearly lost all benefits of exercising over the years.

In this file photo, personal trainer Nancy Burnham lifts weights at a CrossFit in Lilburn. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Burnham, who lives in Athens, is reaping of the benefits of starting exercise as an older adult, and helping others, too. She became an American Council on Exercise (ACE) certified personal trainer. Now 71, she recently wrote and self-published a book, “My War on Aging: Moving Through Life.” Her exercise routine is a mix of everything from Pilates and strength training to walking and riding a stationary bike.

Kathy Brown of Lawrenceville was a client of Burnham for well over year until Burnham’s recent move to Athens. Brown, who is 58, said she’s been a walker for several years but decided a few years back she wanted to add Pilates and strength exercises into her regimen.

Every year, she walks the AJC Peachtree Road Race. But the year she walked the race while also going to a personal trainer three times a week felt different.

“I remember that last mile, feeling this burst of energy I had never felt before,” she said. “Working with a personal trainer helped me tighten up and slim down a bit. I felt more energy too.”

Brown is currently recovering from a knee injury but she looks forward to re-starting an exercise regimen in the coming months.

Of course, there are physical and mental benefits of exercising throughout your life, and not just as you reach middle and late ages. Burnhman tries to inspire people of all ages to experienced the life-changing benefits of physical activity.

National guidelines for aerobic physical activity recommend adults should participate in at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous intensity activity or a combination of both.

Matt Gunby (left), co-owner/trainer, instructs Mike Schuckenbrock, 43, who has been working out past 7 years and lost 40 lb, at Crossfit East Decatur on Friday, March 15, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Burnham understands busy work schedules, family responsibilities and a lack of energy or motivation can all interfere with working up a sweat.

Her advice: Find the type of exercise that works for you and start with one change at a time, like walking 10 minutes a day. She also encouraged people to try to be creative in finding ways to weave exercise into their daily routine, rain or shine.

Doing the dishes? A perfect opportunity to put your hands on the counter and do toe lifts to stretch the hamstrings.

Watching your favorite TV show? Why not use an exercise ball for floor exercises?

Burnham said she knows what it’s like to feel self-conscious about going to a gym as a newbie, and feeling like people might be judging you. She said don’t be afraid to ask for help.

“Respect yourself, and respect your ability. Believe in yourself and remember — this is all about you,” she said.


The American Council on Exercise offers the following tips on how to start an exercise program. Talk to your doctor before beginning a new routine.

1.Go with fun. The best way to keep fit is to choose exercises you enjoy. Consider aqua aerobics, yoga, Pilates, tai chi, line dancing, square dancing, ballroom dancing or even just walking the dog.

2. Start low and go slow. Begin with small amounts of low-intensity exercise. For example, an inactive person could start by walking at a regular pace for five minutes twice a day, five days per week. Slowly increase the amount of time and intensity.

3.Up the intensity. Once you can easily complete low-intensity activity, you are ready to increase your effort.

4. Flex those muscles. Resistance or weight training will help strengthen muscles, build sturdy bones and increase your metabolism.

5. Plan ahead. At the start of each week, look at your schedule and write in where your physical activity will fit the best.

6. Chart your progress. Keep track of your activity on a calendar or activity log. It is motivating to see your progress as you increase the frequency, intensity, and amount of time spent doing physical activity.

7. Ditch the all-or-nothing mentality. Even if you can't meet your weekly goal for activity and strength training, doing something is always better than nothing.

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