Vigorous Physical Activity May Be Key to Successful Aging

10-year study reports that physical activity is determinant of successful aging.

Posted Jul 25, 2018

“Exercise ferments the humors, casts them into their proper channels, throws off redundancies, and helps nature in those secret distributions, without which the body cannot subsist in its vigor, nor the soul act with cheerfulness.” —Joseph Addison (The Spectator, July 12, 1711)

If you’re like most people on the planet, you avoid vigorous exercise and hate breaking a sweat. Based on “The Law of Effect” (Edward Thorndike, 1898) all animals, including humans, are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, so long as aerobic exercise is categorized as drudgery and working out to the point of sweating profusely is perceived as something disgusting, you won’t seek vigorous physical activity.

 Michele Paccione/Shutterstock
Source: Michele Paccione/Shutterstock

Millennia ago, the Ancient Greeks realized that human beings need regular exercise to maintain a sound mind in a sound body (mens sana in corpore sano). People who do not exercise vigorously are much less likely to age successfully according to a recently published 10-year study. In fact, the researchers found that older adults who engaged in higher levels of physical activity were twice as likely to be disease-free and fully functional than their inactive peers. This paper, “Physical Activity as a Determinant of Successful Aging Over Ten Years,” was published online July 12 in Scientific Reports.

For this study, a team of researchers from the Westmead Institute for Medical Research interviewed over 1,500 Australian adults (49+ years old) living outside of Sydney about their weekly exercise habits and overall well-being over a 10-year period.

To gauge the dose-response of varying degrees of weekly physical activity, the questionnaire asked: “(1) In the last 2 weeks did you walk for recreation or exercise for at least 10 minutes continuously? (2) In the past 2 weeks did you do any vigorous activity or exercise which made you breathe harder or puff and pant? (e.g., carrying loads, heavy gardening, chopping wood, laboring – at home, during work or anywhere else) and (3) In the past 2 weeks did you do any other leisure-time physical activities that you haven’t already mentioned? (e.g., more moderate activities such as lawn bowls, gardening).”

How would you respond to these three questions? Suffice to say, participants who regularly performed vigorous activity that caused them to “breathe harder or puff and pant” were also the most successful agers.

What Is Successful Aging?

There are mountains of science-based epidemiological data showing that regular physical activity is strongly correlated with a lower risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. For this study, the Australian researchers wanted to expand the parameters beyond being “disease-free” by examining what Rowe & Kahn (1997) previously defined as “successful aging,” which includes having a lack of physical disability, optimal social engagement, and mental health.

The authors explain, “In our cohort study of adults aged 49+ years at baseline we aimed to investigate whether total physical activity is independently associated with successful aging, which was defined as not experiencing disability and chronic disease (coronary artery disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer), having good mental health and functional independence, and reporting optimal physical, respiratory and cognitive function during 10 years of follow-up.”

As mentioned earlier, based on this definition of “successful aging” the researchers found that people who engaged in the highest levels of total physical activity were twice as likely to avoid cancer, heart disease, stroke, angina, and diabetes. They were also in much better physical and mental shape than their inactive counterparts.

The authors sum up the findings of their decade-long study: “In conclusion, our study has shown that a higher level of physical activity increases the likelihood of surviving an additional 10 years free of chronic diseases, cognitive impairment, and functional disability. These findings underscore the importance of placing greater attention and investments in public health interventions aiming to promote physical activity participation among older adults living in the community.”

"MET-Minutes" Are a Universal Way to Measure Easy-to-Vigorous Physical Activity

Currently, the World Health Organization recommends at least 600 MET minutes of physical activity each week. This is equivalent to roughly 150 minutes of moderate-intensity walking or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (such as jogging) per week. MET units are a metabolic equivalent used to describe the energy expenditure (and aerobic intensity) during physical activity.

One MET unit represents the energy expended while sitting still or at rest. Using this metric, a 2 MET physical activity expends twice as much energy as resting, a 4 MET activity represents four times the metabolic expenditure of sitting still.

To calculate weekly MET-minutes, simply multiply the estimated MET number during your workout by minutes of duration. For example, a 30-minute workout at 4 METs would equal 120 MET-minutes (4 x 30 = 120). Vigorous physical activity is generally defined as anything upwards of 6.0 METs. (e.g., running at 10 minutes per mile (6.0 mph) is a 10 MET activity.) For more on calculating MET-minutes click here. Or, if you use cardiovascular exercise equipment at home or in a gym, check the machine for a MET equivalent to gauge the intensity of your workout and calculate your MET-minutes.

"With aging demographics in most countries, a major challenge is how to increase the quality and years of healthy life," lead researcher Bamini Gopinath of the University of Sydney said in a statement. "Our findings suggest that physical activity levels need to be several times higher than what the World Health Organization currently recommends to significantly reduce the risk of chronic disease. Some older adults may not be able to engage in vigorous activity or high levels of physical activity. But we encourage older adults who are inactive to do some physical activity, and those who currently only engage in moderate exercise to incorporate more vigorous activity where possible.”

When it comes to prescribing vigorous physical activity there is an important caveat: Any intensity of physical activity is better than being inactive or sedentary. As a public health advocate, I’m always hesitant to report on new research that recommends going above and beyond the current guidelines of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA). It's so easy to find excuses not to exercise. If vigorous exercise is touted as some type of be-all and end-all, there's a knee-jerk tendency to take a zero-sum attitude and say to oneself: “I’m unable to work out vigorously. So, why should I bother doing any exercise? It’s pointless.” This inner dialogue is wrong. Countless studies show that walking at any speed helps to maintain mobility and increases longevity. (For more, see “Walking Study Corroborates Hippocrates's Prescriptive Wisdom.") That being said, if you are able to kick it up a notch and push yourself a bit harder during a workout, go for it!

We all know that exercise is good for us and that we should sit less and move more. But, finding ways to motivate ourselves to exercise on a regular basis often feels like a Herculean challenge. And, of course, vigorous exercise produces more discomfort and takes a lot more get-up-and-go than a leisurely walk in the park. Hopefully, the latest empirical evidence presented herein on physical activity being a determinant of successful aging is something you will add to a ‘Rolodex of reasons’ to seek regular physical activity most days of the week and to exercise vigorously some days of the week.

The second part of this blog post (below) is based on anecdotal evidence and life experience geared towards the "49+" demographic or anyone who currently views vigorous exercise and breaking a sweat as something to avoid.

Flip Your “Law of Effect” Script: “Vigorous Exercise Makes Me Feel Good. I Love to Sweat!”

The Law of Effect principle developed by Edward Thorndike suggests: "Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation." (Peter Gray, 2011, pp. 108–109)

If you can begin to associate vigorous physical activity and breaking a sweat with having a “satisfying effect” odds are that regular vigorous exercise will occur again, and again, until it becomes a part of your weekly routine. 

My goal with The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss and this blog post is to help you identify a Thorndike-based source of motivation to seek vigorous exercise. In my opinion, the simple equation Sweat = Bliss sums up a mindset that can inspire you to seek vigorous exercise on a regular basis. Once you begin to equate vigorous physical activity and breaking a sweat with feeling good, you will seek this behavior on a regular basis.

Because all animals seek pleasure and avoid pain, if you can flip the script and start to associate vigorous exercise with feeling good after the workout is over—and start to view sweat streaming from your pores as an external sign of “feel-good” neurochemicals (dopamine, endocannabinoids) and hormones (endorphin, epinephrine) pumping through your body and brain—you will be more likely to seek regular exercise across your lifespan.

If you were born before 1969, the latest research on people’s exercise habits after the age of 49 directly addresses your age-based cohort. I was born in 1966, discovered my love of running and vigorous exercise in the summer of ‘83, and have been jogging regularly (albeit a little bit slower these days) ever since.  

Lately, the smells of summer and listening to some forgotten songs of my youth have caused me to vividly reminisce about what it felt like the first time I made the association between 'sweat and the biology of bliss.' (For more see, “Growth Mindset Advice: Take Your Passion and Make It Happen!”) Because most of us are inspired by the music of our adolescence, I highly recommend making a playlist that includes songs from your high school years to listen to while working out vigorously. 

Although I’m definitely not a poet, when I was seventeen and discovered the life-changing power of running, I wrote a sophomoric poem about how good aerobic exercise and breaking a sweat made me feel. I published this poem in the "Sweat and the Pursuit of Happiness” chapter of my first book:


Water and salt mix.

Add glimmer and slip.

A nose tip drip hits a lip.

Beads and streams from every pore.

Forms a “V” from groin to neck.

Dark wet weight, on a cotton shirt.

Runs down the spine, cools the mind.

Chrysalis Records/Fair Use
Source: Chrysalis Records/Fair Use

As a teenager in the early 1980s, one of the keys to making the association between sweat, vigorous exercise, self-motivation, and feeling really alive was the song “Dancing with Myself” by Billy Idol from his Don’t Stop EP. For all of you from my generation who were born before 1969 reading this, I’m sure you remember seeing this video in heavy rotation on MTV.

Watching the video now, in 2018, through the lens of the newly found link between vigorous exercise and successful aging, I can’t help but see the Dawn of the Dead zombies that come back to life through dancing as a representation of the power of exercise-induced sweat to ward off morbidity and premature death. If I was technologically savvy enough to make a meme designed to make people seek vigorous exercise and adopt a “bring it on!” attitude about breaking a sweat, it would be of Billy Idol chanting “Sweat, sweat...Sweat, sweat, sweat, sweat!” as seen below.

The next time you feel like lollygagging during a workout or dread breaking a sweat, visualize yourself mirroring Billy Idol circa 1981 for a few seconds as you chant his “sweat” mantra repeatedly in your head. I know this sounds ridiculous. But, this trick has helped me power through countless vigorous workouts over the past four decades. Maybe this visualization will work for you, too?

As always, please use common sense and consult with your primary care physician before beginning any new exercise regimen—especially if vigorous physical activity is currently not a part of your daily routine.


Bamini Gopinath, Annette Kifley, Victoria M. Flood, and Paul Mitchell. "Physical Activity as a Determinant of Successful Aging Over Ten Years." Scientific Reports (First Published: July 12, 2018) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-28526-3

John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn. "Successful Aging." The Gerontologist (1997) DOI: 10.1093/geront/37.4.433