You’re probably familiar with the recognized risk factors for cardiovascular disease, the most common killer of Americans. These include chronic health problems, like high blood pressure, obesity, elevated blood sugar, and abnormal blood lipids. Plus, lifestyle habits, like smoking impact the risk as well. But, according to a recent study, how physically fit you are may be a better predictor of whether you die of a heart attack or stroke. Physical fitness may also be a better predictor of how long you’ll live than traditional risk factors, especially after the age of 70.
Physical fitness matters for your future health and wellness. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine looked at the health records of over 6,500 men and women with an average age of 75 years. All of the men and women had undergone a stress test to look at how physically fit they were. If you’re familiar with a stress test, you hop on a treadmill and technicians monitor your heart as they gradually boost the intensity at which you walk by increasing the speed and elevation of the treadmill.
In the study, the researchers used metabolic equivalents to quantify how intensely the participants exercised before having to stop due to exhaustion. The fittest subjects achieved metabolic equivalents, or METs, of 10 or higher. The moderately fit group achieved METs of 6 to 9.9 while the least fit could only do 6 METs or less.
What they found was the fittest individuals, as measured by their METs, had double the odds of being alive in the following 10 years compared to the least fit group. In contrast, the number of cardiovascular risk factors they had was not correlated with their odds of survival over the subsequent decade. In fact, physical fitness was a better predictor than traditional cardiovascular risk factors! It’s customary for health care professionals to ask about cardiovascular risk factors and measure blood pressure and blood sugar, but how many consistently ask about exercise habits? If this study holds true, that should be part of the assessment too!
What makes this study unique is it looked at older individuals and rather than simply questioning them about how active they were as a marker of physical fitness, they measured their fitness capacity on a treadmill to quantify it. Of course, the study only shows correlation, not necessarily causation, but it adds to a growing body of evidence that physical fitness matters, regardless of age or gender.
More Evidence that Being Physically Fit Matters!
Yet another recent study also found a link between higher levels of aerobic fitness and longer survival. In this study, researchers combed through the results of around 122,000 people who had undergone treadmill testing to evaluate their physical fitness level. What they found was those who scored high in terms of cardiovascular fitness had a lower risk of mortality.
Unlike some studies that use self-reported physical activity, this study didn’t show a link between extreme amounts of exercise, like long-distance running, and health risks. Prior studies that relied on self-reported amounts of exercise noted correlations between very high levels of exercise and potential heart issues, like irregular heart rhythms and greater calcification within the walls of arteries. This wasn’t supported by this study. In fact, higher amounts of aerobic exercise appeared to be more beneficial. Age wasn’t a factor either. All ages benefited and people over the age of 70 were the most positively impacted by being physically fit and active.
By all accounts, our bodies are made to move, and we should avoid slowing down as much as possible as we age. Even the elderly can benefit from exercise and being physically fit, as numerous studies show. There is no age barrier to fitness! We can make fitness and health gains at all stages of life. Just move!
Strength Matters Too
From these studies, it sounds like aerobic fitness is best for prolonging life. But, don’t ignore strength training. Other research suggests that strength matters for favorable long-term health outcomes. In fact, a study that measured grip strength of 140,000 adults around the world found that a strong link between grip strength and mortality. Every 11-pound drop in grip strength was correlated with an increased risk of dying of heart attack and stroke as well as a 16% greater risk of dying from all causes.
There’s another reason not to ignore strength training. Working your muscles against resistance reduces the loss of muscle tissue that goes along with aging. In fact, other than consuming more protein, there’s no other way to slow age-related muscle loss. Even if you make it to age 90 because you were aerobically fit, you won’t enjoy living as much if you’re frail or confined to a chair if you lost too much strength and muscle tissue. So, good fitness routines are balanced ones. You need workouts that elevate your heart rate, but you also need exercise that builds strength and preserves muscle tissue too. You need to maintain power capabilities as well, as it’s what helps you push yourself out of a chair. So, include some high tempo or explosive training in your routine to build power.
The Bottom Line
There are so many reasons to stay active and physically fit! Doing so enhances the ability to enjoy life because you’re more functional. It also appears that physical fitness can boost your odds of making it to old age and being functional once you get there. Take advantage of the best medicine that doesn’t come in a pill or capsule. It’s exercise!
· American College of Cardiology. “Higher fitness level can determine longer lifespan after age 70: For older people, fitness may be more informative than traditional cardiovascular risk factors.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 March 2019.
· Can Fam Physician. 2010 May; 56(5): e191–e200.
· Cleveland Clinic. “Better Cardio Fitness Predicts a Longer Life, Study Finds”
· Harvard Health Publishing. “Grip strength may provide clues to heart health”
· TCTMD.com. “Low Incidence of A-fib Seen in Elite Athletes, Including Runners and Triathletes”
· CardiologyNowNews.com. “Debunking Extreme Exercise and Coronary Artery Calcification: Can Those with ‘Hearts of Stone’ Run to Death? A Recent Study Says No”