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Middle Age Fitness Reduces Risk of Many Degenerative Health Problems

James Meschino DC, MS, ROHP
A study published in August 2012 showed that staying fit during middle age is associated with a decreased risk of developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease, during the next several years. Here we see another large study showing that physical activity likely represents an important determinant of healthy aging.

The researchers merged data from the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study with individuals’ Medicare claims when they reached age 65 years or older. The study included data from 18,670 healthy participants (78.9% men, with a median age of 49 years) who survived to receive Medicare coverage from January 1, 1999, to December 31, 2009.

Participants’ fitness level was measured and results were recorded in quintiles, meaning 0-20%, 20-40%, 40-60%, 60-80%, 80-100%. Participants scoring in the top quintile of endurance fitness were in the 80-100% quintile, whereas participants with the worst endurance fitness were in the 0-20% quintile.

The 8 chronic conditions tracked in the follow-up analysis were Alzheimer’s disease, cancer of the colon or lung, congestive heart failure, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes mellitus, and ischemic heart disease.

Men and women in the highest quintile of fitness had significantly lower risk of developing one of these chronic degenerative diseases, compared to men and women in the lowest quintile of endurance fitness.

The results showed that there was about a 5% to 6% reduction in the risk for a chronic disease for every MET achieved, with a range of 5 to 6 METs across quintiles of fitness. This translated into an approximate doubling of risk between the lowest and highest fitness levels. A MET is a endurance fitness measurement that involves how much oxygen is being consumed by the body tissues per minute. The exact equation is one MET of activity = 3.50 mL oxygen/kg/minute. The better fit a person is, the more oxygen their tissues can extract from the blood stream per minute.

The results also showed that a higher level of midlife fitness was associated with the delay in the development of chronic conditions, so that morbidity is delayed until nearer the end of life in fitter individuals. This means a person remains more highly functional until the time just before their decline toward death – shortening the period of being incapacitated and long periods of suffering.

Results also showed that if a 50 year old improved their fitness just 1-2 METs from the first to the second fitness quintile, it was associated with a 20% reduction in incidence of chronic conditions at ages 65 and older. So, getting fit in middle age is a highly desirable goal, even if a person has been unfit up to that point – it can still really pay off.

Previous intervention studies have achieved mean fitness gains of 1-2 METs using a 6-month program of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise (30 mins, 7 days per week of endurance mild to moderate endurance activity)

The bottom line is that we have to get middle aged people more fit. It’s one of the most important ways to reduce risk of many degenerative diseases and save the health care system millions, if not billions of dollars.

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