Midlife fitness outpaces chronic diseases further down the road

Midlife fitness can do more than tone one’s midriff — investigators now say with near impenetrable confidence that patients who exercise in their 30s, 40s, and 50s extend their lifespans whilst also deflating risk for acquiring chronic diseases later in life. 

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A study piloted by researchers at the UT Southwestern Medical Center and The Cooper Institute dissected common knowledge and measured just how integral higher cardiorespiratory fitness levels really are to the both the quality and longevity of life. What they found did little to disapprove the impressive magnitude with which exercise buffers health.

“What sets this study apart is that it focuses on the relationship between midlife fitness and quality of life in later years,” first author of the study, Benjamin Willis, MD, MPH, of the Cooper Institute, said. “Fitter individuals aged well with fewer chronic illnesses to impact their quality of life. We’ve known that a high level of fitness can extend the quantity of life. Now we know that we can impact quality of life too.”

Wielders of the dumbbell are far displaced from the imprudence their implement implies, dodging death and disease with an agility made all the more exact by the number of years it is practiced.

“We’ve determined that being fit is not just delaying the inevitable, but it is actually lowering the onset of chronic disease in the final years of life,” said Jarett Berry, MD, assistant professor of internal medicine and senior author of the study, in a news release.

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Berry, Willis and company examined patient data from 18,670 subjects, a task that demanded 240,000 medical records (maintained over a 40-year span) be poured over and then linked with Medicare claims filed later in life by each participant from ages 70 to 85. Analysis yielded an astonishing result: when patients increased fitness levels during middle age by 20 percent, their chances of developing a chronic disease — such as congestive heart failure, Alzheimer’s disease and colon cancer — decreased by 20 percent in the decades that followed. Those who maintained proper fitness levels staved off chronic diseases until the end of life; both men and women with continual workout propensities were afflicted with less chronic diseases in the last five years of their lives when compared to their less active peers.

“Another unique finding of the study was that even among those participants who had died during the study, the fittest spent less time in their final years burdened with chronic health conditions,” Willis told PhysBizTech. He cited Kenneth H. Cooper, MD, MPH, to further ferment his point: “’This research illustrates perfectly what we’ve been practicing for over 40 years. A healthy and fit lifestyle allows us to square off the curve as I like to call it. That means we want people to spend most of their lives in good health with an active lifestyle and less time with a chronic disease.’”

Aerobic activities lift a figurative weight off of the disease-inclined, which accounts for the entire aging population both Willis and Berry confirmed. But prompting patients to sustain the running start of their youth well into the middle and finish of their lives requires physicians to pass the baton.

“Continuing to encourage physical activity with a goal of improved fitness should be part of each physician’s preventive care program,” Willis said. “There is evidence that if doctors encourage their patients to become physically active, the patients are more likely to begin an exercise program. The 2008 PAGs provide guidelines for the doctors to utilize.  In addition, the Exercise is Medicine Program from the American College of Sports Medicine offers resources to physicians to aid in the development of exercise prescriptions.”

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The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommends that adults get at least 2 ½ hours of moderate physical aerobic exercise each week to reap the benefits of a healthy heart and body. Physicians should consider such advice in conjunction with their personal expertise when prescribing possible fitness regimens to patients.  

The study was funded by NHLBI and the American Heart Association. It’s currently available online here in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

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