NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Men who begin exercising regularly in midlife enjoy the same survival benefits as men who have always exercised regularly, the results of a Swedish study suggest.

However, the report in the March 6th Online First issue of BMJ indicates that it may take 5 to 10 years for the survival benefit of newly exercising men to reach that of their peers with consistently high levels of physical activity.

The study findings indicate that increased physical activity in midlife reduces all-cause mortality by 49%, a drop that is on par with what smoking cessation achieves.

To assess the impact of exercise changes in midlife, Dr. Liisa Byberg, from Uppsala University, and colleagues analyzed data from 2205 men in Uppsala who were examined at 50 years of age, between 1970 and 1973, and were reevaluated at 60, 70, 77, and 82 years of age.

The men were categorized as having low activity levels if they spent most of their time doing sedentary activities. Medium activity men engaged in walking or cycling for pleasure, but no other forms of exercise. Men who engaged in active recreational sports or heavy gardening for at least 3 hours per week or those involved in hard physical training or competitive sport were categorized as having high activity levels.

The mortality rate for subjects with low, medium, and high physical activity were 27.1, 23.6, and 18.4 per 1000 persons years, respectively. Thus, relative to low and medium physical activity, high activity reduced mortality by 32% and 22%, respectively.

During the first 5 years of follow-up, men who moved from low or medium activity to high activity in midlife still had a higher mortality rate than men who were always highly physically active. After 10 years, however, the mortality reduction in these groups was comparable.

“We have shown a graded reduction in total mortality risk with increased physical activity level in men,” the authors conclude.

The findings illustrate that “efforts for promotion of physical activity, even among middle aged and older men, are important.”

BMJ 2009 online.