Fitness pays health dividends even in later life

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A study just published in the Archives of Internal Medicine has found evidence for another advantage of physical fitness: a lower risk of chronic disease later in life.

The study, led by Dr. Jarrett Berry, a specialist in internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, involved more than 18,000 men and women who were observed over a median of 26 years. The participants, most of whom were white and college-educated, began the study at an average age of 50 years. The researchers assessed the participants fitness level and found that those in the highest fifth of physical fitness at age 50 had a significantly lower risk for later development of chronic conditions: heart disease, stroke, chronic lung and kidney disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer s disease. Among men with the highest level of fitness, the rate of chronic disease was 15.6 per 100 person-years, compared with a rate of 28.2 among men with the lowest level. Among women, the results were comparable, with those respective rates at 11.4 and 20.1 per 100 person-years.

Also promising was the finding that a higher level of midlife fitness correlated with a delay in the development of chronic conditions, meaning a better quality of life for a greater portion of one s lifespan, while also significantly reducing a person s risk of developing chronic conditions in subsequent years.

The researchers point to the preventive implications of their study, although they do acknowledge its limitations, given that the participants had a lower prevalence of risk factors at baseline than the general U.S. population. And as Dr. Diane Bild at the NIH s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute pointed out, the role of genetics in health and longevity cannot be discounted.

As for anecdotal evidence, however, ACSH scientific advisor Dr. Jay Lehr points to his own very good health at the age of 76 as an Ironman triathlete. It s exciting to see data collected about what should be obvious benefits of exercise for health, he says.