Fitness Plays Important Role in Longevity
> 12/5/2007 11:29:40 AM

A new study appearing in this week's edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association made headlines today when news outlets jumped on the study's thesis: when it comes to living a longer life, it appears that fitness may be more important than overall body fat or BMI. This result came from work done by researchers at the University of South Carolina that followed 2,600 individuals over the age of 60 for an average of 12 years. By examining a variety of health indicators, the group concluded that individuals with the lowest levels of fitness were four times as likely to die as the fittest of the study's participants. The least fit quintile of the subjects was actually twice as likely to die as the second least fit quintile, illustrating just how damaging low levels of fitness can be.

While this study may lend itself to clever headline writing (Fitness Trumps Fatness!), the results themselves shouldn't shake anyone's world. Researchers measured fitness by measuring how long an individual could walk on a treadmill while the incline was gradually increased. For adults over the age of 60, this measure of fitness will typically correlate strongly with overall health. Those who can walk the longest will be the most fit, and will therefore have the best chance to live the longest. What this study shows is that these advantages hold even when BMI and other size measures are controlled for. Again, this shouldn't surprise too much, if only because these two results are independent. A strong fitness score has little to do with body mass, although it may be more unlikely for someone in say the heaviest quintile to score well.

As Dr. Steven Blair, one of the study’s authors, explained in a university press release, this research shouldn't be seen as a green light to pack on the pounds:

“It is possible for many older Americans to improve their fitness,” Blair said. “The good news from this study is that they don’t have to be thin to benefit from being physically active.”

The study isn’t giving Americans permission to throw caution to the wind and eat whatever foods they want.

“But people can say, ‘I may not be as thin as I was, but I can still be healthy because I’m being active and have a balanced diet,’” he said. “Enhancing physical capacity should allow older adults to achieve a healthy lifestyle and enjoy a longer life in better health.”

Eating healthy remains an integral part of any healthy lifestyle, but this new research should provide comfort to anyone who may have let their fitness lapse. Even individuals who have led relatively sedentary lives to this point can find increased benefit from getting active. The early returns can be enormous, especially for older Americans. Whether its living longer, as we see here, or maintaining strong cognitive function, being active is an important part of getting older.

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