Back to Fitness: Get Fit = Live Longer

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John Andersen

A link to a CNN article recently caught my eye. The article was titled, “Not exercising worse for your health than smoking, diabetes, and heart disease, study says.” On one hand, I believe this without even reading the article or the study. Yes! Go out and get fit! You will thank yourself! On the other hand, I wanted to read the study and make sure this wasn’t an exaggerated title, but somewhat low on substance.

The study is published in a new, free, online publication by the Journal of the American Medical Association called JAMA Network Open and was published in the October 2018 issue by a group of physicians at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

They looked back over 23 years of stress test data: when they get you on the treadmill at a doctor’s or cardiologist’s office and measure your cardiovascular function. Well, they looked at more than 122,000 stress test results and followed up on all of these people to examine how cardiovascular fitness associates with long-term mortality. We’re not talking about how fitness lowers your risk for cancer or stroke, etc.; we are talking about how your fitness level relates to when you die.

Their conclusions?

Increased cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) was associated with reduced long-term mortality with no observed upper limit of benefit. The adjusted mortality risk of reduced CRF was greater than or equal to traditional clinical risk factors, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and smoking. Extreme aerobic fitness (CRF ≥2 standard deviations above the mean for age and sex) was associated with the greatest survival and was notably beneficial in older patients and those with hypertension. Cardiorespiratory fitness is a modifiable indicator of long-term mortality, and health care professionals should encourage patients to achieve and maintain high levels of fitness.”

As the kids say these days – “Boom!”

Let’s break that paragraph down a bit.

“Increased cardiorespiratory fitness was associated with reduced long-term mortality with no observed upper limit of benefit.”

If you are fit, you will live longer. If you are even more fit, you will live even longer. And if you are super fit, you will live even longer! Not said in this study is quality of life. No one wants to live longer in a sad, diseased state. Although not specifically noted in this study, I happily argue that if you are more fit, not only your longevity will improve, but also your quality of life.

I constantly take inspiration from active older folks. My dad, at 79 years of age, still travels around the world and literally skis faster than me (and I’m really not that bad). Is he just gifted with good genes? Nope, he has been active his entire life. He still hikes and bikes and has a bike trainer in his home for the bad weather days. The runners and bikers I see that are in the over-70 category constantly impress me with their youthful minds and spirits and ability to do whatever they want to do without their health getting in their way.

“The adjusted mortality risk of reduced cardiorespiratory fitness was greater than or equal to traditional clinical risk factors, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and smoking.”

This, I believe, is the most powerful sentence in the entire article. “Yeah, yeah, we know that if we exercise and get really fit, we’ll probably live longer and better. But that seems like a lot of work! I’m doing fine living comfortably the way I am!” Well, according to this study, you might as well be smoking.

We have a major perspective problem in this age about what is “normal” for human activity. As an avid runner, there are constant comments made towards me about my “crazy running habit” or assumptions of being a “health freak,” etc. I think most avid exercisers can very likely relate. I argue, however, that regular exercise is an essential natural behavior for us humans and in fact is necessary for our basic health.

The humans who inhabited this country and this planet 300 years ago had hard lives, requiring constant manual labor to survive. Hunting, gathering, farming, building–there was no technology to make life easy–it was hard living and people toiled all day, all year to survive. Today, we really have it easy! We don’t have to do much to live a posh life! How amazing are our hot showers every day!  And cold milk in the fridge that we bought from the supermarket? It is always amazing to me that we can so easily forget where we all came from. And we wonder why there are so many health crises and mental health problems? We are simply not getting outdoors and exercising because we don’t have to. So, this study makes simple sense: when we are inactive and not being “normal” active humans, we will die sooner.

“Extreme aerobic fitness was associated with the greatest survival and was notably beneficial in older patients and those with hypertension.”

Get fit and keep going! Especially if you’re older! Don’t buy into the spell of labeling people as exercise fanatics or crazies because what they do seems excessive. Maybe they’re on to something;)

Cardiorespiratory fitness is a modifiable indicator of long-term mortality, and health care professionals should encourage patients to achieve and maintain high levels of fitness.”

Modifiable. Changeable. Your current fitness level can change if you want it to. And it’s never too late. Not only will your fitness improve, but your risk for mortality will decrease and your quality of life will increase.

Life is short and precious. When I see the difference between an active 70 year old and a sedentary 70 year old, it is striking. I want to be the active one, and getting there starts by staying fit now and continuing. Seems like a lot of work, but when I’m skiing backcountry slopes in Utah powder with my 79-year-old dad this winter, he will surely tell me it has all been worth it. 

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