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"All of us are athletes...." (studies on whether former athletes are healthier than those who have been sedentary)

"All of us are athletes..." It's tempting to believe that people who started exercising at a young age--especially those who participated in sports during high school or college--are likelier to be physically active and healthier later in life. But recent studies suggest that being a former athlete doesn't necessarily confer any health advantages, with one possible exception.

In one study at the Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas, for instance, 420 men (ages 25 to 60) were divided into two groups--those who lettered in, or at least participated in, a sport in school and those who had never been active in sports. The researchers found that the two groups, did not differ significantly in blood cholesterol levels, weight, blood pressure, fitness level, or current activity level. Is it easier for former athletes to start exercising again, compared to nonathletes? Apparently not, for when sedentary men from both groups were advised to start an exercise program, participation rates were about the same. And nearly five years later, the former nonathletes had benefited from their exercise regimens as much as the former jocks, as seen in changes in weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, and other cardiovascular risk factors. Another study, conducted at the University of Georgia in Athens in 1988, found similar results.

This suggests that it's never too late to start exercising, even if you've shied away from athletics all your life, and never too late to begin again. Former athletes have no advantage in middle age--they don't stockpile the fitness benefits for later years. Current exercise habits are what count most, not previous participation. In other words, exercise is good for you only as long as you do it.

Female athletes" advantage

One possible exception concerns women who participated in sports in college. Two studies at Harvard University suggest that female former athletes have a lower risk of a variety of cancers (includind cancers of the breast, uterus, overy, and digestive system) than nonathletes. The researchers had several theories for the possible anti-cancer effect of exercise--even that done decades earlier. It can take 20 years or more for cancer to develop, so it's likely that what people do early in life could have crucial effects. The female former athletes may also have been eating a low-fat diet when theywere training, which may have reduced their risk of breast cancer. In addition, exercise affects the hormonal system in ways that may reduce cancer risk. However, there's still no consensus among scientists about the effects on cancer risk, especially since so many factors over many years are involved.

You can't do anuthing now about the exerice habits of your youth, in any case. But the advantages of being physically active now are clear, especially for your cardiovascular health. Anyone can benefit, and at any age. As Dr. George Sheehan has written, "all of us are athletes; the difference is that some of use are in training, and some of us are not."

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Publication:The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter
Date:May 1, 1991
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