You’re in control: Exercise outweighs genetics when it comes to longer life

SAN DIEGO — If living into your 90s seems to run in the family, don’t just assume that means you will too. Our genetics make us who we are, but new research from the University of California, San Diego finds exercise trumps genes when it comes to promoting a longer life.

You don’t need a medical degree to know that forgoing physical activity in favor of stagnation isn’t the wisest choice for your health and longevity. But, certain people are genetically predisposed to live longer than others. The research team at UCSD set out to determine if such individuals don’t have to move quite as much as the rest of us to live just as long.

“The goal of this research was to understand whether associations between physical activity and sedentary time with death varied based on different levels of genetic predisposition for longevity,” says lead study author Alexander Posis, M.P.H., a fourth-year doctoral student in the San Diego State University/UC San Diego Joint Doctoral Program in Public Health, in a university release.

This research project began a decade ago. In 2012, as part of the Women’s Health Initiative Objective Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Health study (OPACH), study authors began keeping track of the physical activity habits among 5,446 older U.S. women (ages 63 or older). Subjects were tracked up until 2020, and wore a research-grade accelerometer for up to seven days. That device measured how much time they spent moving, the intensity of that physical activity, and their usual amount of sedentary time.

Sure enough, higher levels of light physical activity and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity were associated with a lower risk of dying during the tracking period. Additionally, more time spent sedentary was associated with a higher risk of mortality. Importantly, this observed connection between exercise and a longer life remained consistent even among women determined to have different levels of genetic predisposition for longevity.

“Our study showed that, even if you aren’t likely to live long based on your genes, you can still extend your lifespan by engaging in positive lifestyle behaviors such as regular exercise and sitting less,” explains senior study author Aladdin H. Shadyab, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at UC San Diego. “Conversely, even if your genes predispose you to a long life, remaining physically active is still important to achieve longevity.”

In conclusion, study authors recommend that older women engage in physical activity of any intensity as regularly as possible. Doing so will lower the risk of both various diseases and premature death.

The study is published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity.

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