Is Fitness During Middle-Age a Good Predictor of Longevity?

Is Fitness During Middle-Age a Good Predictor of Longevity?

(Last Updated On: June 16, 2019)

Middle-aged Fitness Level

If you could gaze into a crystal ball and see how long you’ll live, would you do it? It would probably be a bit disconcerting to know the exact day you’ll leave this earth, but you probably want to do everything you can to preserve your health so you’ll be around longer. Lifestyle is the key to achieving that! As you might expect, exercise and your fitness level is part of the equation too.

Regular exercise gives you a longevity advantage and being physically fit is beneficial for lowering the risk of a variety of chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and some forms of cancer. There’s even evidence that aerobic fitness is a marker of longevity and an even better predictor of survival than a marker like blood pressure. Aerobic fitness matters!

The Role Aerobic Fitness Plays in Longevity

A recent study carried out by researchers in Copenhagen found a strong correlation between aerobic capacity and longevity. For the study, researchers recruited 5107 healthy, middle-aged men with an average age of 49. The guys rode on a bicycle-ergometer to determine their fitness level. Over a 46-year period, researchers followed the men to see how long they lived. The long, follow-up period adds to the credibility of this study.

As expected, only 8% of the men were alive by the end of the study. When the researchers compared their aerobic fitness, as measured by V02 max, with how long the men lived, those who had higher aerobic capacity, as measured by V02 max, enjoyed a significant survival advantage. In fact, the men in the highest 5% of aerobic fitness lived, on average, 5 years longer than the least physically fit. The response was also graded. As V02 max rose, survival did too. The longevity advantage persisted even when they controlled for body mass index and lifestyle habits that would influence mortality risk.

The above study suggests that how physically fit you are during middle-age is a predictor of longevity.  Other research also finds that aerobic fitness later in life is correlated with survival. When researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine analyzed the health records of over 6,000 elderly men and women, they found that the men and women who scored better on a treadmill stress test and were able to sustain exercise at a higher intensity enjoyed a longevity advantage. In fact, the fittest of the older individuals were twice as likely to be alive the following decade relative to the least fit.

Finally, a large retrospective study of 122,007 men and women revealed that aerobic fitness was inversely correlated with mortality from all causes. In other words, the less aerobically fit a person is, the greater their odds of dying early. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be a ceiling on these benefits. Those who are extremely physically fit have a substantially lower risk of early mortality. Fitness matters!

The results aren’t surprising since being physically fit protects against the most common causes of death, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, and cancer. What’s more, being aerobically fit is a better predictor than many characteristics we link with mortality, such as blood pressure and smoking history. Even after a heart attack or other cardiac event, aerobic fitness is a marker of survival. Plus, studies show people who have had a heart attack or undergone a cardiac procedure have greater odds of long-term survival if they have a high level of fitness.

Being Aerobically Fit Enhances Health Span Too

It’s not just the years you live but the time you live fully and abundantly, what we call health span. Aerobic exercise enhances health span too. As Harvard Health points out, your functional age matters more than your chronological age. You can be “old” in your 80s or still fully functional and youthful. Being physically fit, both from an aerobic and strength standpoint, is one factor that determines how full of life you’ll be in the latter years. Will you thrive or just exist? Hopefully, you’ll have a long life span AND a long health span. They both matter!

Lifestyle Matters

There are other ways to boost your odds of making it to old age. Data from two large studies called the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study showed that five lifestyle factors are the key to longevity:

·        Maintaining a body mass index between 18.5 and 24.9 kg/m2

·        Engaging in moderate to intense physical activity daily

·        Limiting alcohol intake

·        Not smoking

·        A high diet quality score


How much can integrating these five lifestyle factors into your daily life enhance longevity? According to the study, it can prolong life expectancy at age 50 by over 12 years for men and 14 years for females. That’s a substantial boost in life expectancy!

In terms of diet, a high-quality diet score would come from eating mostly whole foods and avoiding highly processed foods, refined carbs, sugary drinks, and foods that contain added sugar. Research suggests that a Mediterranean-style diet that emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods with lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish and whole grains along with a moderate amount of poultry is a good eating-style to emulate. It’s a non-faddish diet that offers lots of variety. Plus, studies show that this dietary approach is linked with a lower risk of a variety of chronic health problems, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and some types of cancer.

The Bottom Line

Aerobic fitness and lifestyle matters! Staying physically active can prolong your life and extend healthspan, the healthy, disease-free years that you live. So, take advantage of the ability to move your body and celebrate it with regular physical activity.



· “Fitness Levels in Middle-Age May Predict Survival Decades Later”

·        JAMA Netw Open. 2018;1(6):e183605. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.3605.

·        BMJ Open 2015;5:e007772. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2015-007772.

·        Medscape Family Medicine. “Fitness Linked to Lower Ventricular Arrhythmia Risk Later”

·        Circulation. 2018;138:345–355. July 24, 2018.

·        Diabetes Care. 2011 Jan;34(1):14-9. doi: 10.2337/dc10-1288. Epub 2010 Oct 7.

·        N Engl J Med 2013; 368:1279-1290.


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