Here’s an incentive for middle-aged people (like me) to maintain physical fitness: It may help keep you healthy as you grow older.
Research published Monday afternoon in the Archives of Internal Medicine finds connections between midlife fitness and later-in-life health. Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the Cooper Institute looked at data for 73,439 people who had participated in the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study, and at Medicare records for 18,670 of those people from up to 46 years later.
They found that those who were most fit in their 30s, 40s and 50s had a lighter load of chronic health conditions such as congestive heart failure, ischemic heart disease, stroke, diabetes mellitus, chronic kidney disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and colon and lung cancers in the later years of their lives (in this study, after age 65, when Medicare enrollment kicks in).
Interestingly, people’s fitness wasn’t as strongly related to their longevity as to their level of chronic disease. That “compression of morbidity,” as the study calls it, suggests that maintaining fitness in midlife might reduce the number of years you might have to contend with chronic disease, even if it doesn’t extend your life.
Fitness was measured via a standard treadmill test, the study explains.
The strongest connection between fitness and chronic disease burden was found among those with the lowest levels of midlife fitness (i.e. those in the bottom fifth of the group, fitness-wise, had the heaviest load of chronic disease near the end of their lives). From that finding the authors found promise, suggesting that those with low fitness levels who make modest improvements (the equivalent of six months of moderate-intensity exercise, 150 minutes per week) might lighten their future burden of chronic conditions by 20 percent.
The authors acknowledge several limitations in their work, including the fact that the participants in the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study were in a socioeconomic group — with higher income and better education — that generally enjoys better fitness and health than the general population. Also, factors such as stress and diet were not recorded in the longitudinal records, so their potential influence was not weighed in this research.
Still, the authors note that their study, whose key findings are consistent with earlier research, makes an important contribution in distinguishing between actual midlife fitness, as opposed to self-reported measures of physical activity, and quality of life down the road.
See you at the gym!