Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Physically Fit? Your Heart Will Thank You

Can fitness at 40 predict heart health at 80? It seems to.

Researchers at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and the Cooper Institute in Dallas found that middle age adults who exhibited high or moderate levels of fitness were significantly less likely to suffer from heart-related problems later in life. Fitness was measured in the studies using carefully monitored treadmill testing to gauge cardiovascular endurance and muscle fatigue. Subsequently, fitness could be translated to specific “mile-times” or, how quickly an individual could complete one mile. Although the researchers acknowledge that the definition of fitness varies depending on gender and age (among other factors), it boiled down to this.

High level of fitness: Male in his 50’s who can run a mile in 8 minutes or less
Female in her 50’s who can run a mile in 9 minutes or less

Moderate level of fitness: Male in his 50’s who can run a mile in 9 minutes
Female in her 50’s who can run a mile in 10:30 minutes

Low level of fitness: Male in his 50’s who runs a mile slower than 10 minutes
Female in her 50’s who runs a mile slower than 12 minutes

Although the categories might seem crudely delineated, in fact, researchers found a considerable difference in risk of heart problems down the line. The timed-mile data was as accurate at predicting long-term heart health as cholesterol measurements and blood pressure. The study illustrated that subjects in the high-fitness group had a 10% lifetime risk of cardiac issues, compared with 30% for those in the low-fitness group.

With the normalization of obesity on the rise, this study is especially pertinent. As Americans, we have become so accustomed to seeing overweight people around us, we fail to notice what truly qualifies as overweight. Most people don’t have a clear sense of where they fall on the fitness spectrum, tending to overestimate how fit they are rather than acknowledge the risks associated with low fitness on overall health. This study highlights the fact that individuals can be active and might meet the basic guidelines for physical activity, but in many cases they are unable to engage in vigorous exercise.

Moderate exercise is always better than none at all, and movement in general wards off a host of chronic diseases, but a high level of fitness is directly related to reduced heart risks. All the more reason to get off the couch and go for a run!

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