You’ve been hearing for years that exercise can help you live longer, but how much longer? A study in the Nov. 14 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine has some answers.

Using data from the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed more than 5,000 Massachusetts residents for the past 46 years, researchers calculated the effects of physical activity on life expectancy in people ages 50 and older. They found higher levels of physical activity added one to three years to total life expectancy, regardless of age, sex, or other health problems.

Compared to those with low levels of physical activity, highly active men in the study lived 3.7 years longer and moderately active men lived 1.3 years longer. In women, the figures were 3.5 and 1.5 years.

Impact on Cardiovascular Health

The researchers also found moderate to highly active individuals spent more years without cardiovascular disease.

“This study shows that higher levels of physical activity not only prolong total life expectancy but also life expectancy free of cardiovascular disease at age 50 years,” the researchers write. But they caution that the study did not take into account diet, alcohol use, or aspirin regimens, which are also known to affect cardiovascular health.

The researchers say their findings support current recommendations that adults engage in moderate physical activity on most days of the week. An example of such activity is 30 minutes of brisk walking or a shorter session of jogging.

“The role that physical activity plays in cardiovascular risk management should be emphasized to achieve a worldwide implementation of an active pattern of life,” they conclude. “Our study suggests that following an active lifestyle is an effective way to achieve healthy aging.”

By Sherry Rauh, Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Franco, O.Archives of Internal Medicine, Nov. 14, 2005; vol 165: pp 2355-2360. News release, JAMA/Archives. CDC.