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Midlife Fitness Extends Health Span

What’s the key to health and wellness during your golden years? Be fit in your fifties!

At least that’s what researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and the Cooper Institute report in their new study, published in the most recent issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. According to their analysis, individuals who are most fit at midlife suffer the fewest chronic illnesses after age 65 and live healthier lives in their final years.

Participant data from the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study and Medicare claims for 18,670 healthy adults were studied. All study volunteers had completed a treadmill test around age 50 to measure cardiorespiratory fitness.

The treadmill tests were then linked to the incidence rate of eight diseases – ischemic heart disease, stroke, Type-II diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic kidney disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and lung or colon cancer – using Medicare claims data over the next 26 years.

Midlife fitness reduced the risk of ever developing these chronic diseases. Men and women in the highest level of midlife fitness saw a lower incidence at 16% and 11%, respectively.

On the other hand, the rate of developing a chronic disease among men and women who scored in the lowest fifth of the fitness test was about 28% and 20% annually.

Analysis showed that the positive effects of fitness continued until the end of life, with the fittest men and women experiencing fewer chronic diseases during the final five years of their lives; however, the likelihood of morbidity was not necessarily higher in the less fit than the very fit. The less fit had a tendency to die after long periods of disease. The highly fit had good health for most of their golden years and experienced short illness before death.

While the study does not prove that better fitness midlife results in lower disease risk, it does show a strong association between the two after factoring out smoking history, obesity, and alcohol use.

Many studies have linked higher fitness levels to longevity, but they have not been conclusive in establishing whether fitness during younger years prevents or simply delays chronic disease in later life.

Dr. Jarrett D. Berry, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, states, “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.”

The Bottom Line

For most of us, quality of life is far more important than quantity of life. We don’t necessarily want to expand our lifespan (or number of years we live, which is largely determined by genetics) but rather want to expand the portion of our lives that we’re healthy, active and on the ball (health span, which is largely determined by diet & lifestyle).

What this study shows us is that if you want to embark on an anti-aging program, the best advice is to stay healthy and fit throughout adulthood. How do we do that? By engaging in healthy habits such as eating more fruits and vegetables, staying away from saturated fats, and enjoying treats (yes, that includes wine) in moderation. Above all, however, is increasing physical activity.

Instead of viewing exercise as a necessary chore that requires X minutes of commitment per day, try reframing the idea to focus on the immediate and palpable benefits of exercise. View it as a way to feel happy, less stressed, or more energized. Use it to form social bonds, and find friends and build camaraderie while engaging in group exercise – something particularly beneficial for older adults. By using this approach, we can reap the health benefits later in life.

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