30 Minutes of Doing Just About Anything Will Extend Your Life. (That Includes You, Boomers)

First you have to live in a walkable city; then you need to get a dog. (Photo: Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

A study published recently in the Lancet dramatically proves the benefits of exercise among people of all ages; researchers in 17 countries looked at 130,000 participants and asked about all kinds of physical activity, looking at everything they did. The study found a huge reduction in death rate for people who did 150 minutes of exercise a week — 30 minutes, 5 days a week. But the most important takeaway was that it didn’t really matter what kind of exercise people did.

"I would dispel the notion of having to put out money to be active," said Dr. Scott Lear, the study lead author and a professor at Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Health Sciences in Canada, in an email [to VOX]. "Our findings indicate that nonrecreational activity — work, housework, active transportation — is just as beneficial in reducing the risk for premature death and heart disease."
The NEXTadventure house that meets your every want. (Photo: Taylor Morrison)

This is critically important for aging baby boomers. As noted in a previous post — This house is not designed to help anyone age gracefully — boomers tend to buy houses where there is little active transportation and few stairs. But the study confirms that the design of our homes and communities matters. Professor Lear notes that "As countries have become more economically prosperous, we've what I'd call engineered activity out of our life," Lear said. "There's a lot of people who think the only way to get physical activity is by putting out money and going to a gym, but that's not the case."

A doctor reviewing the study, Dr. David Alter, [no relation] calls exercise a medicine. "I was struck by the consistency in how important that exercise pill was for health and survival." He tells the CBC that he recommends "doing less intense types of activity, such as climbing stairs, walking a few blocks at a brisk pace, or sweeping instead of vacuuming."

The study concluded that getting that 150 minutes of exercise resulted in a 28 percent reduction in premature death, and a 20 percent reduction in heart disease. From the study:

Our findings demonstrate that physical activity (both recreational and non-recreational) is associated with a lower risk for mortality and major CVD events, which was independent of the type of physical activity and other risk factors. ... Even meeting the physical activity guidelines such as walking for as little as 30 minutes on most days of the week had a substantial benefit.

Meanwhile, another study backs up that point.

Gerontologists and sports physicians at Goethe University Frankfurt have examined the effects of regular exercise on brain metabolism and memory of 60 participants aged between 65 and 85 in a randomised controlled trial. Their conclusion: regular physical exercise not only enhances fitness but also has a positive impact on brain metabolism.

This isn’t news; I might even note that we told ya so. (We wrote about it here: Boomer alert: Exercise keeps your brain young.) It’s also not a just a medical issue; it's a design issue. Our cities, our neighborhoods, our houses, the entire economy, they're all designed to do stuff for us that we should be doing ourselves. Dr. Richard Johnson told American landscape architects:

Obesity is a "common cause epidemic," and a related health impact, diabetes, is now a "rushing health crisis," driven in large part by the sedentary, car-based lives we are leading. Sprawl, in effect, kills. Less density equals more driving. "We are engineering exercise out of people’s lives" by creating suburban cul-de-sacs and putting places of work and living far from each other. Higher density equals more walking. "This is an issue of life and death."
gallup study
Healthy cities encourage people to walk. (Photo: Gallup)

A recent Gallup study confirmed that urban design drives health statistics. The cities with the best outcomes share certain features: "These communities are creating vibrant, livable, walkable, and bikeable public spaces and are investing in infrastructure that provides safe places to exercise and move naturally."

I mentioned earlier a post about a house design and aging gracefully; I originally wanted to title it This house will kill you, but my editor thought that was a bit over the top. I think in retrospect, it was probably accurate. Because in the end, all these studies appear to confirm that every one of us has to move, to do something, 30 minutes a day. That’s what matters. And the older you are, the more important it is.