Lack of Fitness Second Only to Smoking for Highest Death Risk

One of the best things you can do for your health is to exercise, according to research that found low fitness in middle age was second only to smoking as a risk factor for death in men. The study, which was published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, included 792 men who were followed for 45 years. Each of the men underwent a clinical exam including a medical history evaluation, a physical exam, and an exercise test when they were 54 years old. During the exercise test, in which most of the men pushed themselves to their limit, researchers measured the men’s heart rates and peak oxygen uptakes to determine their physical fitness (higher peak oxygen uptakes indicate greater physical fitness). After this clinical exam, the men were followed via medical examinations approximately every ten years until they either passed away or turned 99. The researchers analyzed the data for correlations between health markers—including smoking habits, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and physical fitness—and likelihood of dying during the study. They found that:

  • Men with the highest and intermediate peak oxygen uptakes at their initial exam had a respective 42% and 21% reduced risk of death, compared with those with the lowest peak oxygen uptakes. The negative effect of poor fitness was evident even after taking other cardiovascular risk factors into account.
  • Risk of death was higher in men with the lowest peak oxygen uptakes than in those with high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure—meaning poor physical fitness was a better predictor of dying than these well-known cardiovascular risk factors.
  • Only men who smoked had a higher risk of death than men with the lowest peak oxygen uptakes.

While previous studies have found exercise may help lengthen life, this study’s extremely long follow-up period of more than four decades paints a better picture of how physical fitness may lead to a longer life. It also shows how poor physical fitness in middle age can affect lifespan compared with other risk factors, like smoking and high cholesterol levels. In case you need more reasons to get up and move, research has associated exercise with other health benefits, such as a reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline. So, while the message isn’t new, it’s one worth reiterating—exercise to increase your fitness for a long and healthy life!

Source: European Journal of Preventive Cardiology

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