However, a study published in August 2021 in Mayo Clinic Proceedings better coincided with the federal guidelines. It found that people who exercised between 2.6 and 4.5 hours a week (156 to 270 minutes) had the most improvement in life expectancy. They were about 50 percent less likely to die in a 25-year period than those who didn’t exercise.
Interestingly, the mortality benefits diminished in those who exercised more than 10 hours a week, says coauthor James O’Keefe, MD, director of preventive cardiology at the St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute.
O’Keefe recommends shooting for 30 to 55 minutes of physical activity a day and prioritizing activities you can do with others. He notes that another analysis of the same data set showed that activities like tennis, badminton and soccer were associated with a longer life span than exercising solo.
“For overall well-being and longevity, interactive sports, where there is some camaraderie, are the best,” he says. “You don’t have to go to the gym, put headphones on and slog through a 45-minute treadmill session. Find whatever is enjoyable for you.”
You may get the best payoff by hitting around 7,000 steps a day
Although 10,000 steps a day has been touted as the gold standard, it appears that a number closer to 7,000 steps may be enough for a longer life span.
Researchers in a September 2021 study found that middle-aged adults who took at least 7,000 daily steps over a 10-year time span had a 50 to 70 percent lower chance of early death compared to those who took fewer steps, says study author Amanda Paluch, a physical activity epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Paluch says his team decided to look at steps because they account for overall movement throughout the day rather than the time specifically set aside for “exercise.” Their results reinforce other research on the dangers of being sedentary.
“The great thing about tracking steps is that it’s easy to fit into your daily lifestyle,” Paluch says. “It doesn’t have to be getting out and doing a long bout of exercise. You can opt to move more around your house, park further away, do some gardening or light housework or something active with your grandkids.”
As you get older, you may benefit from even fewer steps. A Harvard-led study found that women in their 70s who averaged at least 4,400 steps a day lived significantly longer than those who averaged 2,700 steps daily.
You can build strength in one minute a day
Incorporating strength training into your weekly routine is also important for a long life, research shows. One study published in the journal Preventive Medicine found that older adults who strength-trained at least twice a week had 46 percent lower odds of early death.
Another meta-analysis reviewed 11 studies and found that compared with no exercise, resistance training on its own was associated with a 21 percent drop in the risk of all-cause mortality. When combined with aerobic exercise, it cuts the risk by 40%. That analysis also found no benefit to doing more than two stints of resistance training a week.
For the best results, do exercises that target major muscle groups and do 8 to 12 repetitions of each, the federal guidelines say.
However, even just a minute a day of resistance training can make a difference, according to a 2021 Penn State study. In the study, older adults who did 30 seconds of squats and 30 seconds of push-ups every day for 12 weeks had measurable increases in strength.
Strength training doesn’t have to mean lifting weights. Experts say it can also work with a resistance band, using your body weight for exercises such as squats and pushups, or digging with a shovel while gardening. Newbies can start with gentle body-weight exercises, like sitting on a couch and extending each leg up and down five times, suggests Justus Ortega, associate dean of the school of applied health at Cal Poly Humboldt in Arcata, California. What’s important, he says, is that you tire each muscle to the point that it’s difficult to do another repetition.
Yes, flexibility and balance really do matter
The federal activity guidelines specifically advise older adults to include stretching and balance training as part of their weekly physical activity, and that’s backed up by science showing a strong link to longevity.
For example, a 2021 study published in JAMA Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery found that poor balance function was linked to a 44 percent increased risk of death from all causes in adults ages 40 and older.
Balance and flexibility training is the “great ignored third component” of healthy aging, Kraus says. Maintaining your flexibility and balance as you age is important to improve your mobility, preserve your independence and — perhaps most critically — help prevent falls. More than 1 out of 4 older adults fall each year in the US, making it the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries to older Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Your lower limbs get really stiff as you age,” Kraus says. “If you step on a pine cone and you’re flexible and balanced, you’ll recover. If you’re stiff, you will fall.”
Spending 10 minutes a day doing some flexibility and balance exercises is all that’s necessary, experts say.You can sign up for a fall prevention class, take tai chi or check out the easy exercises recommended by the National Institute on Aging.
Editor’s note: This story, published Nov. 30, 2021, has been updated to reflect new information.
Michelle Crouch is a contributing writer who has covered health and personal finance for some of the nation’s top consumer publications. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, Real Simple, Prevention, The Washington Post and The New York Times.