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A new study comparing the survival of men who started and maintained exercise programs with those who never exercised concludes it's never too late to get started.

Steven N. Blair, head of the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, said Tuesday the 10-year study showed that men who were unfit but who exercised their way to good physical shape had about half the number of deaths from all causes of those who never bothered to get in shape.When only heart attack deaths were considered, the exercise benefit was even greater, the research found.

The research, being published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, studied 9,777 men who took measured treadmill exercises between 1970 and 1989. The men received a second treadmill test five years after the first, and then their health was monitored for another five years.

For those judged unfit in both treadmill tests, the death rate in the five years following the tests was 122 per 10,000. For those judged fit at both of the tests, the death rate was 40 per 10,000. And for those judged unfit at the first test, but in good physical condition at the second test, the death rate was 68 per 10,000.

Men in the test ranged in age from 20 to 82 years. There were benefits from exercise, however, no matter what age of the men. Fit men aged 60, for instance, had a 50 percent lower death rate than persistently unfit men of the same age.

"It is never too late to take up exercise to improve your risk" of preventing heart attack, Blair said. "A sedentary lifestyle is a very important health risk."

The study dealt only with men, he said, because there wasn't enough data yet to draw conclusions about the effect of exercise on women. Other studies, however, have shown that the health effects of exercise are relatively the same for both genders.

Blair said people don't have to go into serious athletic training in order to get benefit from exercise. He said it takes only about 30 minutes of daily exercise to achieve a healthful benefit and that the exercise doesn't have to be within a single half-hour period.

Just five or 10 minutes walking or stair climbing will strengthen the heart, he said, as long as the session times total about 30 minutes daily.

"It doesn't even have to be strenuous," said Blair. "It can just be of moderate intensity."