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Want to Be a Healthy Senior? Get in Shape Today

A new study offers proof that people who are fit in midlife can better avoid chronic conditions in later years

By Gary Drevitch

Do you want a better quality of life in your later years? Start exercising now.
That’s the conclusion of a new study that found a strong link between midlife fitness and senior health.

Scientists have long believed that people who are physically fit are better able to delay the onset of chronic illness and, on average, live somewhat longer than those who are less fit. But the thinking was that both groups would experience a similar number of years of chronic illness.

The new research, however, is consistent with the theory of "compression of morbidity," which suggests that when we postpone the onset of chronic illness, we can also compress our total lifetime "illness burden." Remaining fit throughout middle age, the study indicates, helps us shrink the amount of time we may have to spend living with chronic illness.
Dr. Jarett Berry and a team of researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center analyzed the Medicare claims of more than 18,000 men and women who, around the age of 50, had taken a treadmill test to measure cardiovascular fitness as part of the ongoing longitudinal health study at the Cooper Institute in Dallas. What they discovered, and published this week in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, was that midlife fitness was a strong predictor of the avoidance, after age 65, of eight major chronic conditions, including congestive heart failure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and colon and lung cancer.
For example, the rate of chronic disease among men who scored in the top fifth on the fitness test was 16 percent per year; for those in the bottom fifth, the rate was 28 percent. For women who scored in the top fifth on the fitness test, the rate of chronic disease was 11 percent; in the lowest fifth, 20 percent. (The fitness level of men in the top fifth of the study was equivalent to the ability to run a mile in 8 minutes; for women, it was equivalent to being able to run a mile in 10 minutes.) "It has been known for decades that if you are more fit, you live longer. But it has not been clear that you have a higher quality of life, that you age better," Berry told Reuters. "We see truly reduced chronic disease, rather than just delaying the inevitable."

There could be other factors at play, such as genetics. In an editorial accompanying the new research in the journal, Dr. Diane Bild of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md., pointed out that "fitness is a function of both exercise and genetics." And while the University of Texas team factored smoking, alcohol use, obesity, blood pressure and cholesterol levels into their research, they were not able to factor in diet, which is another potentially crucial predictor of future health. Also, participants in the Cooper Institute study were primarily from a higher-income, better-educated socioeconomic group, which tends to have better health than others.
Still, the study is an "excellent addition to the evidence supporting the contention that cardiorespiratory fitness helps people thrive," Bild wrote. "It gets to a goal which a lot of people express, which is to live a long, healthy life and die quickly." As she put it, if more people can get fit in middle age and compress their time with chronic illness, it could "get our societal survival curves into the best shape: rectangular."


The study's results, which are based on actual measures of fitness, as opposed to people’s self-reporting, strongly argue not only for the value of cardiovascular exercise, but for launching or intensifying one's exercise regimen in midlife because improvements in fitness could pay real dividends down the line. Federal fitness guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week for adult Americans, or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise. Berry's results convince him that the higher the intensity, the better. "Walking is clearly better than doing nothing, but if you can make the choice between walking and jogging, then jogging is probably better for you," he told Reuters.

Gary Drevitch was senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health channels. Read More
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