Workouts Over 40 vs Workouts in your 20s | Visualized Health

By Charles Li MD

March 14, 2019

  • A new study shows that starting a new workout routine in your 40s is nearly as good for your heart as working out for your whole life.

  • Working out in your 20s then stopping does not appear to benefit your heart very much.

  • These same patterns appear for cancer mortality as well.

New research shows that it is never too late to start exercising. In fact, exercising later in life might just be better for you.

The benefits of exercise are very clear. Exercise reduces heart disease and leads to a longer life.

Source: NIH study finds leisure-time physical activity extends life expectancy as much as 4.5 years

However, one question that remained inadequately answered was how exercise patterns over a lifetime affect heart health and mortality.

If you're in your 40s, is it too late to start a workout program?

If you're in your 50s and overweight, are you doomed to poor cardiovascular health?

Data on Exercise In Your 40s

chart of heart disease mortality and over 40 workouts

The answer to both is no.

First the good news. Exercising later in life is nearly just as good as exercising for your whole life.

Researchers found that starting a new workout in your 40s is about as good your heart as working out for your whole life.

Researchers surveyed 315,059 individuals on how often they participated in exercise or physical activity for each period of their lives. They categorized individuals into 7 categories based on these patterns. They then cross referenced the data with mortality records, which showed causes of death.

In the chart above, we show the relative ratios of heart disease related deaths between different exercise profiles.

Not surprisingly, individuals who exercised for their whole lives had a significantly lower risk of heart disease mortality than those who never regularly exercised. (0.66 vs 1)

Surprisingly, individuals who only started regularly working out later in life, as represented by the green line on chart, had a similarly low, if not lower, risk of heart disease mortality.

This shows that it is not too late to start a workout. If you are diligent and consistent, you can achieve great results.

Source: Association of Leisure-Time Physical Activity Across the Adult Life Course With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality

Exercising in your 20s Is Not As Important

chart showing working out in your 20s vs heart disease

The bad news is that working out when you're younger doesn't help much if you stop working out regularly in your 30s.

As shown in the chart above, individuals who worked out regularly in their 20s and then stopped (purple line) had a heart disease mortality risk similar to those who never exercised regularly (orange).

Their risk of heart disease mortality was significantly higher than those who worked out for their entire lives. (Blue)

This suggests that once you stop working out, heart disease can quickly set in.

Being a star athlete in your 20s does not necessarily translate to better heart health in your 60s if you stop working out in your 30s.

Later Life Workouts and Cancer

chart showing working out and cancer risk

Exercise showed a correlation with cancer mortality risk as well. (As in, working out correlated with a lower risk of dying from cancer.)

While the differences between exercisers and non-exercisers were a lot smaller than the differences in heart disease mortality, individuals who exercised regularly did have a significantly lower risk of cancer.

This may partly be due to the fact that individuals who exercise frequently have better lifestyles overall.

Similar to the data on heart disease, those who started exercising in their 40s had a similarly low cancer risk as those who had exercised regularly over their entire lives.

However, individuals who only worked out in their 20s and stopped exercising when they got older did not have a significantly lower risk of cancer compared to individuals who never regularly exercised.


The key take away from this study is that you should exercise, and you shouldn't stop just because you are in your 50s or 60s.

If you want to live a longer healthier life, get started with a regular exercise program. The study did not examine how much you can lift, how far you can run, or your split times. What mattered the most for the individuals in this study was how regularly you exercised.

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