You're never too old to benefit from exercise

Even those in their 50s can dramatically cut their chances of having a stroke by becoming more active, writes Margaret Jennings

Stroke is the third biggest killer in Ireland, but can often be avoided. Picture: iStock

COUCH potatoes in their 50s have got a new lease of life with the revelation they could cut their risk of getting a stroke by half, if they changed their lazy
habits — even at that late stage, according to new research.

The study, carried out by Norwegian
researchers over almost three decades,
involved only men. But the message, that
exercise is a major influence on heart health and that even in mid-life it’s not too late to start, surely is relevant to women also.

Lead researcher, Dr Erik Prestgaard from Oslo University Hospital, told the European Society of Cardiology congress in
Barcelona, that despite years of little
physical activity, those who change their habits in this period of their life, can
dramatically improve their chances of
staving off stroke in the following decades.

But he warned that if they don’t take this action their risk soars.

The researchers started tracking 1,400 men aged 40 to 60, in the 1970s, and at first monitored them for seven years to see how their exercise habits changed.

Most participants — 65%, became less fit in those seven years, and only 35% took up more exercise. Tracking them over the next 28 years, they found one in eight had a stroke.

The payoff was clear for those who had increased their exercise most over those first seven years; they were 56% less likely to have a stroke later, compared to those who had become more inactive.

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.”

Interestingly there was no difference found between those who had been fit all their lives and those who suddenly decided to get active — offering a clear message of hope to the lazier among us.

But he warned that those who let themselves go at this time — which his study
suggests the majority of us do, increase the risk of a stroke: “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,” he told the congress.

Stroke is the third biggest killer disease in Ireland with 10,000 people affected every year here. More people die from stroke than from breast cancer, prostate cancer and bowel cancer combined. One in six people will have a stroke at some time in their life, according to the Irish Heart Foundation; most are over 65, but stroke can strike at
any age.

While we are regularly warned about how an unhealthy lifestyle raises our risk of cardiovascular illness, a stroke is very specific; it occurs when blood supply to the brain is cut off, either by a clot (ischaemic stroke) or brain bleed (haemorrhagic). Symptoms occur suddenly and can include weakness or numbness on one side of the body, difficulty speaking, blurred vision, or loss of sight.

The term ‘stroke’ comes from the fact that it usually happens without warning,
‘striking’ the person from out of the blue, and the effects on the body are immediate.

Lack of exercise is a well-known lifestyle factor contributing towards high stroke risk, while the others are smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high blood cholesterol levels, heavy drinking and a high salt and high-fat diet.

But for those who thought their bad habits were hopelessly set by their early 50s, and felt it would be too difficult to change, this research offers a new incentive.

A few months back 98-year-old masters athlete Charles Eugster, who was in extraordinary shape for his age, told Feelgood’s Ageing With Attitude that he was “a balding self-satisfied lump of lard” in his 40s before he embarked on a fitness programme that had him first rowing competitively in his 60s and then body-building from his mid 80s.

But the Norwegian researchers do not suggest that couch potatoes have to embark on such a major exercise regime to benefit. Those who increased their fitness levels “weren’t in any kind of fitness programme,” said Dr Prestgaard. “They weren’t marathon runners or anything like that.”

Many of them took up regular exercise such as walking and cycling. “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,” he added.

Meanwhile, for those still at risk, it is important to know the FAST acronym associated with suffering a stroke, as getting to a medical centre as soon as possible can lead to a better recovery, or even save lives: FACE: Is one side drooping?

ARM: Can the person raise both arms, or is one arm weak?

SPEECH: Is speech slurred or confusing? TIME: Time is critical. Call 999.

  • Further information on stroke prevention
    can be found at


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