Scientists say it is never too late to take up exercise - and doing so even after years of inactivity can quickly pay dividends.
Remarkably, they found men who started getting fit in their 40s and 50s saw their stroke risk drop to levels seen among those who had exercised throughout their youth.
The findings, by Norwegian researchers, offer hope that it is not too late to get fit to the millions who do very little exercise in middle age.
Erik Prestgaard, a doctor in the cardiology department at Oslo University Hospital, said even after decades of little physical activity, those who change their habits in this period can dramatically improve their chances of a healthy retirement.
"If you’re 50 and not fit, over the next years you can become fit and lower your risk. It’s never too late to get fit," he said.
Crucially, however, his team found those who don't take control of their health at this point see their stroke risk soar.
The research team, presenting their findings at the European Society of Cardiology congress in Barcelona, found that failing to exercise in these years can have a catastrophic impact on health in later life.
There has been a warning of an "inactivity epidemic" which has seen exercise levels drop 20% since the 1960s. Officials are particularly worried about the 6.3million middle-aged people - 41% of the age group - who do not even take a brisk walk once a month.
The Norwegian researchers tracked 2000 men aged 40 to 60, starting in the 1970s. They were initially monitored for seven years to see how their exercise habits changed.
Most participants - 65% - became less fit in those seven years, and only 35% took up more exercise.
The researchers then tracked them for another 23 years, in which time one in eight had a stroke. Those who had increased their exercise the most in the seven-year window were 56% less likely to have a stroke later compared to those who had become more inactive.
Dr Prestgaard said the men who increased the most were not fit at all, they just went from low levels and moved up. He said a big part of those men were just getting themselves together.
“The findings are important because they show that even moderate increases in cardiorespiratory fitness in middle-aged men may significantly lower stroke risk. It’s a really big risk reduction - 56%."
Prestgaard found no difference in outcome between those who had been fit all their lives and those who suddenly decided to get active. And he said it would not take a big effort for someone to turn their life around. “They weren’t in any kind of fitness programme," he said.
However, he warned that those who let themselves go at this time - which his study suggests the majority do - increase the risk of a stroke. "If you’re in good shape when you’re 50, you can’t just stop working out and float on what you have. You have to keep it up," he said.
Prestgaard admitted the findings were limited because the team tracked only men, so it is not clear whether they would also apply to women.
Meanwhile, another finding was that divorcees are at a higher risk of dying after suffering a heart attack, a study has found.
Those who have split from their partners are 16% less likely to survive than those in marriages, according to data from a million patients.
They are also 7% more likely to die than single people who have never wed. - Daily Mail