Before Marvin Zuckerman retired two years ago as dean of Los Angeles Valley College, he rarely had time to exercise. To fill his newfound free time, he joined some political groups -- and started working out.
Now, at age 72, he attends an aerobics and weights class twice a week at the Palisades-Malibu YMCA. His wife, Kathy, 62, a lifelong surfer, drags him to the beach as often as she can. He also takes walks around his neighborhood in Pacific Palisades.
"I've always known that I needed to exercise more," Marvin Zuckerman said. "Now's my chance, because I'm not working."
New research suggests that even occasional exercise can help Zuckerman and many other older Americans live longer.
A 12-year study by Swedish researchers found that people age 65 and older who, on average, exercised less than once a week had a 28% lower risk of dying than those who didn't exercise at all. Seniors who said they worked out about once a week had a 40% lower chance of dying than inactive seniors during the 12-year period.
The study lends support to the something-is-better-than-nothing approach to exercise, said Wayne Phillips, an associate professor of exercise and wellness at Arizona State University who was not involved in the study.
The study defined occasional exercise as less than once a week and included such activities as one-hour walks, skiing a couple of times a year, swimming or picking mushrooms.
Seniors who exercised more than once a week experienced about the same benefit as people who exercised only weekly.
In 1988, Stockholm statisticians interviewed 3,206 Swedish seniors about their health and exercise habits. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute followed up with the seniors 12 years later; by then, 1,806 had died.
The study's authors speculated that the relationship between exercise and decreased mortality might be related to exercisers' lower risk of heart disease. Their work was published in the July issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The study did not take into account the exercise people get while doing chores, gardening, shopping or playing with grandchildren. "Since most people do these things on a regular basis, there is a good chance there was additional physical activity going on that the researchers didn't collect," Phillips said.
One limitation of the study, Phillips noted, was that it examined only how long the participants lived. It did not measure the participants' overall quality of life, so it is unclear how healthy the seniors were at the end of 12 years, Phillips said.
Kristina Sundquist, lead author of the study, recommended that seniors exercise at least once a week.
Researchers suggested that more senior centers offer fitness programs, such as group walking or bicycling. "There's not much out there at the moment," Phillips said.