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In Old Age, Exercise More Closely Tied to Health Than Diet

In Old Age, Exercise More Closely Tied to Health Than Diet

by Kyley McGeeney and Elizabeth Mendes

But, Americans exercise less as they age

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- An analysis of seniors' health habits -- controlling for demographic and socio-economic factors -- reveals that those who have better health habits are much more likely to say they are in "excellent" or "very good" health. But, exercising frequently, not being obese, and visiting a dentist are the most related to reporting great health.

Seniors in excellent or very good health

More specifically, seniors who exercise frequently are much more likely than those who do not to say they are in excellent or very good health -- 51% vs. 34%. Similarly, 46% of seniors who are not obese rate their health as excellent or very good versus 31% of those who are obese. Those who eat healthy and do not smoke are also more likely to be in excellent or very good health than those who do not -- but the differences are not as great.

These differences hold even when controlling for age, gender, employment, income, marital status, emotional health, and each of the other healthy behaviors. This means that not being obese and exercising frequently are more highly related to great health regardless of all of these factors.

The direction of the relationships between seniors' health habits and self-reported health status is not clear in this analysis. For example, it is possible that only those seniors who are already in great health are able to exercise, while those who are in worse health are not able to exercise as frequently.

These findings are based on more than 480,000 interviews collected as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index from Jan. 1 2011, to May 21, 2012.

Exercise Tapers Off With Age, but Healthy Eating Improves

Although exercise might be one of the most important factors to great health in old age, Americans are not engaging in it more as they age. The percentage of Americans who report exercising for at least 30 minutes three or more days per week decreases from 59% among those aged 18 to 24 to 45% among those aged 90 and older.

Exercise, though, may become more difficult for Americans as they get older. Americans' health problems tend to increase and multiply as they age, thus likely making exercise harder.

Exercise habits by age

In contrast to exercise, the percentage of Americans who report healthy eating skyrockets as they age, climbing from 54% of 18- to 24-year-olds who say they ate healthy all day yesterday to 91% of those aged 90 and older who say say the same.

Healthy eating habits by age

The percentage saying they ate healthy yesterday climbs steadily as Americans age -- into the 60% range when they hit their 40s, the 70% range in their late 50s, and then soars into the high 80% and low 90% range as they move into their 80s and 90s.

Americans' likelihood of visiting a dentist does not change in the same linear fashion as they age as their exercise and eating habits do. However, after peaking at 68% in the 60 to 64 age range, dental visits start to steadily decline, dropping to a low of 56% among those aged 90 and older.

Dentist visits by age

Regardless of their health habits, older Americans are much less likely to report being in excellent or very good health than are those who are younger. Sixty percent of those aged 18 to 24 say they are in excellent or very good health, which drops significantly as Americans age, falling to a low of 35% among those aged 85 to 89. The percentage who say they are in good, fair, or poor health climbs to a high of 65% among those aged 85 to 89.

Americans become more likely to say they are in good, fair, or poor health than in excellent or very good health once they enter their late 50s.

Rating of health by age

Bottom Line

While good health habits alone cannot stave off the effects of aging, those who do practice good health habits give themselves an edge in old age. In particular, seniors who exercise frequently, maintain a healthy weight, and visit the dentist are much more likely to say they are in excellent or very good health. In fact, frequent exercise, not being obese, and visiting a dentist are even more important than are healthy eating and not smoking to reporting great health in old age.

About the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index tracks well-being in the U.S., U.K., and Germany and provides best-in-class solutions for a healthier world. To learn more, please visit

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews conducted as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey Jan. 1, 2011-May 21, 2012, with a random sample of 484,278 adults, aged 18 and older, including a random sample of 150,984 adults aged 65 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, selected using random-digit-dial sampling.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit


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