A study of more than 13,000 women, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that those who had the highest physical activity levels compared with those with the lowest in middle age had better overall health as they got older.

“What we found is, at age 60 or younger, if you engage in moderate physical activity – such as brisk walking for 30 minutes a day, seven days a week – you’ll have much better odds of achieving successful aging than [someone] who didn’t do that,” explains study author Qi Sun, MD, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. For this study, successful aging was defined as the absence of cancer, diabetes or other major chronic diseases, as well as no evidence of physical disabilities, impairments in cognitive function or mental health limitations by the age of 70.

Studies like these, however, may resonate more with the scientific community than the general population.

“Most of the studies mean a lot to physicians and scientists [who have evidence] the portion of the population that exercises does better. But on an individual basis, people may struggle with how much is enough for them. There isn’t an automatic feedback mechanism,” explains Michael McConnell, MD, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine in California.

Dr. McConnell is the lead author of a study that found older men and women who engaged in the highest level of physical activity – doing things like playing tennis, swimming and jogging – experienced more heart benefits than the least active group. His study, published in the April 2011 Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Cardiovascular Imaging, also found the heart arteries benefit from everyday physical activities, such as casual walking, not just hard-core exercising. That’s something he now stresses to his patients.

Dr. Chang believes a lot of people with RA and other forms of arthritis are hesitant to become more physically active on their own. He recommends starting with the Arthritis Foundation’s Walk with Ease Program.

“In general, I think walking is something people feel comfortable doing – even people with RA and knee osteoarthritis. Then I would say, if you have trouble and you feel your joints are getting worse because of walking – then that might be the time to talk to physician about seeing a physical therapist to find an exercise program that takes these problems into consideration,” Dr. Chang says.