Staying Fit to Stay Alive

Healthnotes Newswire (January 24, 2008)—Physical exercise prevents a wide array of chronic diseases and preserves physical and mental functioning as we age. Now there is evidence that exercise not only helps us live healthier but also longer.

The start of a new year presents a fresh opportunity to embark on a regular exercise program. For those who make and keep such New Year’s resolutions, the rewards over the coming year could include weight loss, a healthier heart, better concentration and productivity, better sleep, and a more positive mood. As they age, people who exercise now are more likely to continue to exercise, and they can look forward to a lower risk of most cancers, less likelihood of dementia, and slower age-related changes throughout most of the body.

Yet, despite the clear benefits of physical activity, more than 50% of Americans admit that they do not get 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days of each week, or 20 minutes of vigorous activity three days per week—the minimum level recommended by the Office of the Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American College of Sports Medicine. Partly as a result of this unfortunate fact, more than half of American adults are overweight, almost one-third are obese, and nearly 6% have type 2 diabetes.

The findings from the National Institutes of Health–American Association of Retired Persons (NIH–AARP) Diet and Health Study, published in Archives of Internal Medicine, suggest that the people who exercise at recommended levels live longer than people who don’t exercise. In the study, 252,925 people between 50 and 71 years old were followed for an average of five years. Compared with people who did not exercise, those who met or exceeded the moderate exercise recommendation of at least three hours per week had a 27% lower death rate, and those who met or exceeded the vigorous exercise recommendation of 20 minutes three times per week had a 32% lower death rate.

Another study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, similarly found that physically fit people have lower risk of death, and they found this to be true even among overweight adults. In the study, 2,603 people age 60 or older underwent physical tests for fitness and were followed for an average of 12 years. The death rate among the most fit people was 75% lower than the rate among the least fit. The researchers then analyzed the data by dividing the people into groups by their weight status and found that fitness was linked to lower death rate in people in all weight categories.

“We found that fitness is a strong predictor of overall death among older adults, independent of body composition and other mortality risk factors,” the study’s authors noted. “In most instances, death rates for those with higher fitness were less than half of rates for those who were unfit.”

Finding an exercise routine that works well for you is the first step toward getting fit. Brisk walking, fast dancing, hearty gardening, and heavy housework are some ways to get moderate physical activity, and running, cycling, and playing sports like soccer, basketball, and tennis are usually vigorous. Breaking a sweat and increases in breathing rate and heart rate are good signs that you are getting a serious workout.

(Arch Intern Med 2007;167:2453–60; JAMA 2007:298:2507–16)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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