People who play a sport are more likely to stay healthy and fit as they age, according to a new study published in BMJ Open, compared to those who do other types of physical activity. Finding a sport you love early in life—and playing it often—may be the key to staying active in your 70s, 80s and beyond.
The transition from middle age to old age is often one of slowing down. Retirement or injuries, for example, can lead to major life changes and affect the amount of physical activity a person gets on a regular basis.
Yet staying active is vital to preserving mental and physical health—and the ability to live independently—as people age.
Daniel Aggio, a doctoral student at University College London, and his colleagues wanted to see who tended to keep up active habits over time. They analyzed data from nearly 3,500 men, collected over 20 years, and found that men who were physically active in their 40s and 50s were nearly three times as likely to be active in later decades, compared to those who were sedentary in middle age.
That wasn't very surprising. The more interesting finding emerged when they looked at how these men were staying active. Just about 50% of middle-aged men played sports or did other formal exercise at least occasionally, and this remained relatively stable over the 20-year study.
Other types of recreational activities, such as gardening, housework and do-it-yourself activities, did not stand the test of time nearly as well. While 56% of men reported high levels of these activities at the start of the study, that number fell to 40% by the end.
Walking was the only activity that people did more of—not less—over time. The percentage of men who reported high levels of walking actually increased over the course of the study, from 27% to 62%. This uptick may have occurred because many men in the study retired during this time and were no longer stuck behind a desk or in other sedentary workplaces, the researchers say.
But it was sport and exercise in middle-age—more than walking or other recreational activities—that best predicted how active people would be in their older years. The longer men had played a sport, the more likely they were to stick with it: Those who had been doing it for 25 years or more at the start of the study were nearly five times as likely to still be physically active two decades later.
Even late adopters got big benefits. People who took up sports relatively late in mid-life were more likely to be active in old age compared to those who never did.
MORE: TIME's Guide To Exercise
The reason why people tend to keep up a sports or exercise habit may simply be because they enjoy it. Physical conditioning may play a role, too. “Regularly playing sports, particularly from earlier in life, may help to develop and maintain the necessary skills and physical function needed to maintain and active lifestyle into old age,” Aggio wrote in an email.
Even though the study was only in men, Aggio suspects that the findings apply to women as well. Just walking more as you get older is a good place to start, he says, and may have significant health benefits.
But for the best chance at staying fit for as long as possible, he recommends finding a more athletic hobby. “Taking up sport, even in midlife or early old age, may increase the chances of being active in old age,” he says.