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Want to Live Longer? Get Moving

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Exercise Can Keep You Younger than Time Says You Are

If you were to ask me if there were any way to slow down the aging process or even reverse it, my answer would be blunt: “Go jump in the lake.”

And then swim around in it for awhile. Or go jogging. Or bike riding. Or play some tennis. Or hit the stair master.

Basically, engage in some cardiovascular exercise, as vigorous as you can manage without serious overexertion. That’s because while there is no fountain of youth, exercise can be a fount of physical fitness, which is the next best thing in terms of longevity.

Evidence of this has been provided by a series of studies conducted by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who have developed a concept called fitness age, which they consider to be a better predictor of one’s likely lifespan than one’s chronological age.

Measuring Your Fitness Age

Your fitness age is essentially determined by your level of cardiovascular endurance, which in turn is a function of your body’s efficiency when it comes to using oxygen.

The technical term for this efficiency is your VO2max. It is calculated based on your aerobic capacity as measured while using a treadmill, and the higher it is, the fitter you are. And the fitter you are, in a sense, the younger you are, at least in terms of how many years you probably have left.

There are several very significant aspects to the concept of fitness age. First, it may be strikingly different than your age in years. A male aged 50 chronologically could, depending on how his VO2max compared to the norm for his age group, have a fitness age anywhere from 30 years old to 75 years old.

The researchers contend that having an advanced fitness age may be a more accurate predictor of statistically early death than such established risk factors as obesity, cholesterol levels, hypertension or even smoking.

They were able to reach this conclusion thanks to the fact that Norway is one of those countries that provide universal health care, which means there are mountains of health and mortality data involving tens of thousands of people who have been part of various health studies going back several decades. Although few of those people had conveniently taken treadmill tests for their VO2max rating, the researchers found that a combination of health indicators such as waist circumference, exercise routine, gender and resting heart rate correlated closely to VO2max, and those indicators had been recorded for more than 55,000 adults.

By cross-checking death records and the relevant health data on the deceased, they determined that a person whose calculated fitness age was 15 percent greater than his or her chronological age ran an 82 percent greater risk of premature death compared to persons whose fitness age equaled or was less than their chronological age.

A Little Work Goes a Long Way

That’s the bad news. The good news, according to the Norwegians, is that if you increase your exercise level even modestly, your VO2max, your fitness age, and your odds of living to a ripe old age will also increase. The more the exercise, presumably, the greater the benefits.

But wait, there’s more. A follow-up study issued last July looked at the effect of exercise specifically on older adults. The researchers asked participants in the Senior Olympic Games, open those age 50 and older, to use an online fitness age calculator that employed the health indicators used to determine the VO2max.

Based on more than 4,000 responses, they found that the Senior Olympians were not only younger fitness-wise than others their age, but dramatically so: those whose chronological age was 68, for example, had an average fitness age of just 43. In terms of lifespan, that’s a difference that should give senior citizens some pause.

And that’s still not all. First, Senior Olympians are not former professional or Olympic athletes who are now over 65; they are mostly avid amateurs who train regularly, but not to any extraordinary degree.

Second, and extremely heartening, most of them had never engaged in serious physical training until well past their prime. With few exceptions, they are ordinary individuals who didn’t take up exercising at their current level until they were middle-aged or older.

Here’s the takeaway: If you are a senior citizen, it’s not too late to begin an exercise routine — almost any form of exercise qualifies — that can increase your chances of becoming a still more senior citizen. Think of it as delaying your graduation day, as it were.

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