Physical Fitness Improves Quality, If Not Quantity, of Life

Another study reinforces the benefits of physical fitness: it might not lengthen your life, but fitness goes a long way toward helping you live better.

Published recently in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the study examined the association between midlife fitness and chronic diseases later in life. It followed 14,726 healthy men and 3,944 healthy woman for nearly 30 years and looked at eight chronic conditions (CCs)-congestive heart failure, ischemic heart disease, stroke, diabetes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic kidney disease, Alzheimer disease and colon and lung cancers.

“In the present study, higher fitness measured in midlife was strongly associated with a lower incidence of CCs decades later,” the authors concluded.

The highest level of midlife fitness was associated with a lower incidence of CCs compared with the lowest midlife fitness as measured by treadmill times.

Even a moderate increase in fitness might reduce CCs in older age. Over five levels of fitness, the study said, improving only one level at age 50 was associated with a 20 percent reduction in the incidence of CCs at 65 and older.

And higher fitness levels of participants who died during the study were more strongly associated with a delay in the development of CCs than with survival. So even if they didn’t live longer, fitter people lived better.

In an accompanying commentary, Dr. Diane E. Bild of the National heart, Lung and Blood Institute cautioned that although fitness might be key to healthy aging, that’s a function of both exercise and genetics. To say that fitness equals the avoidance of disease is too simple.

Still, Bild concludes that research on healthy aging provides insight into living longer, healthier and more active lives and, potentially, reducing health-care costs.

If you’re a mid-lifer who has decided-really! truly! finally!-that it’s time to get into better shape, Harvard Health Publications has some advice.

The simplest way to begin is by walking, which most people can do without medical permission unless:

  • You are extremely unsteady on your feet.
  • You have dizzy spells or take medicine that makes you feel dizzy or drowsy.
  • You have a chronic or unstable condition, such as heart disease (or several risk factors for heart disease), asthma or other respiratory ailment, high blood pressure, osteoporosis or diabetes.

Several different medical specialists can tailor an exercise regimen to your needs. They include:

  • Physiatrists (or rehabilitation physicians) are board-certified and specialize in treating nerve, muscle and bone conditions affecting movement, such as stroke, back problems, Parkinson’s disease, neuropathy and debilitating arthritis or obesity.
  • Physical therapists work to restore abilities patients have lost to injury or health problems. They focus on strengthening muscles, bones or nerves, and might address problems as varied as a sprained ankle or recovery from a heart attack. After receiving a bachelor’s degree, physical therapists must graduate from an accredited physical therapy program, pass a national exam and be licensed by their state. Some get board certified by completing advanced training.
  • Physical therapy assistants provide services under the supervision of a physical therapist. They also must pass a national exam and, in most states, be licensed.
  • Personal trainers are fitness specialists who help you perform exercises properly, teach new skills, provide motivation and workout variety. There are no national accrediting requirements, although standards for the accrediting fitness organizations that train them have been set by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies. Two well-respected such organizations with training programs are the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Others include the National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Their requirements for training and expertise differ. Some trainers specialize in working with particular populations-for example, older adults or athletes.

One tool the Harvard report suggests might help you assess your fitness level and whether you should seek medical advice is the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q) developed by the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology. It’s designed for people from 15 to 19. Click here.

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