Physical activity across midlife and health-related quality of life in Australian women: A target trial emulation using a longitudinal cohort

Binh Nguyen*, Philip Clare, Gregore I. Mielke, Wendy J. Brown, Ding Ding

*Corresponding author for this work

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There is little long-term causal evidence on the effect of physical activity on health-related quality of life. This study aimed to examine the associations between longitudinal patterns of physical activity over 15 years and health-related quality of life in both the physical and mental health domains, in a cohort of middle-aged Australian women.

Methods and findings:
We used data collected at 3-year intervals (1998 to 2019) from 11,336 participants in the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH) (1946 to 1951 birth cohort). Primary outcomes were the physical (PCS) and mental health component summary (MCS) scores (range from 0 to 100; higher scores indicate higher perceived physical/mental health) from the SF-36 in 2019 (when women aged 68 to 73 years). Using target trial emulation to imitate a randomized controlled trial (RCT), we tested 2 interventions: (1) meeting the World Health Organization (WHO) physical activity guidelines consistently throughout the 15-year “exposure period” (2001 to 2016; when women aged 50–55 to 65–70 years; physical activity assessed every 3 years); and (2) not meeting the guidelines at the beginning of the exposure period but starting to first meet the guidelines at age 55, 60, or 65; against the control of not meeting the guidelines throughout the exposure period. Analysis controlled for confounding using marginal structural models which were adjusted for sociodemographic and health variables and conditions. Consistent adherence to guidelines during the exposure period (PCS: 46.93 [99.5% confidence interval [CI]: 46.32, 47.54]) and first starting to meet the guidelines at age 55 (PCS: 46.96 [99.5% CI: 45.53, 48.40]) were associated with three-point higher PCS (mean score difference: 3.0 [99.5% CI: 1.8, 4.1] and 3.0 [99.5% CI:1.2, 4.8]) than consistent non-adherence (PCS: 43.90 [99.5% CI: 42.79, 45.01]). We found a similar pattern for most SF-36 subscales but no significant effects of the interventions on MCS. The main limitations of the study were that it may not account for all underlying health conditions and/or other unmeasured or insufficiently measured confounders, the use of self-reported physical activity and that findings may not be generalizable to all mid-age women.

Results from the emulated RCT suggest women should be active throughout mid-age, ideally increasing activity levels to meet the guidelines by age 55, to gain the most benefits for physical health in later life.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1004384
JournalPLoS Medicine
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2024


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