The Links Between Exercise and Life Expectancy

link between exercise and life expectancy

You probably won’t be surprised to know that there is a strong the link between exercise and life expectancy. I’d like to tell you about a simple test score that can predict your life expectancy based on your fitness levels. Also, in relation to improving/maintaining fitness levels, I’d like to tell you some surprising news about just how much exercise you may really need to get/stay more physically fit.

What are the Links Between Exercise And Life Expectancy?

Back in December 2012, cardiovascular researchers published the findings of a study they did in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention. The study focused the link between exercise and life expectancy by using a simple sit/stand test that they reported can pretty accurately predict your longevity.

As a result of this study, many doctors around the country are using this score to tell them, basically, what shape their patients are in and what they need to work on to improve their results. Here’s how it works:

You simply sit on the floor and try to stand up with as little assistance as possible – not using your knees or your hands, or a nearby chair for support. The better able you are to stand on your own, the better your muscle and skeletal strength is. Scoring is as follows:

  • 0-3 – low
  • 3.5-5.5 – low-moderate
  • 6-7.5 moderate
  • 8-10 moderate-high

In their study, the researchers followed up on 2002 adults aged 55-81. They found that of the 159 people who died during the study period, all but 2 of them had low (0-3) scores. They made the prognosis that if you have a 0-3 score, you’re life expectancy is less than 6 years.

BUT, the researchers also noted, you can change this score pretty quickly if you make the effort to improve your muscular-skeletal fitness. Even a 1 point improvement in your score can reduce your mortality rate by 21%! That’s a pretty big improvement. 

So, you can go from the 0-3 score to the 3.5-5.5 score fairly quickly by getting more exercise. After a few months of regular exercise, your score could be much higher. Exercise that builds bone, muscular strength AND flexibility is the key to improving your score. This could include:

  1. Endurance exercise. Increases strength, endurance, lung and heart capacity. This can include swimming, bicycling, walking briskly, rowing. Also, using the stairs at work, not using a golf cart, stretching more doing housework can help.
  2. Impact exercise. Foot/pavement impact type exercise helps build bone density as well as muscular strength faster. Jumping rope, playing basketball, doing fast interval sprinting on a school gym track, rebounding for 10-15 minute intervals.
  3. Weight resistance using free weights are good, using your own body is even better as it also builds flexibility and strength. Weight machines are okay to start if your balance is not so great, but try to progress to free weights and/or whole body exercise (TRX, Kettlebells, flexible bands, fluidity bar,) soon.
  4. Interval aerobic exercise. It’s recently been reported by researchers that too much continuous aerobic exercise, like 45-60 minutes every day, can actually work against your heart strength. You want to constantly strengthen your heart by challenging it with short bursts of intense aerobic exercise – say 1-2 minutes at a time – for not more than about 10-15 minutes in a set, 3 times a week. This also helps burn fat and decrease hemoglobin A1c levels that when high can fuel inflammation, a disease precursor condition.

The link between exercise and life expectancy: What do the Doctors Say?

Typically, doctors and physical fitness experts have told patients that they likely need to do both aerobic and resistance exercise at least 2-3 times a week to yield any significant improvement in muscle strength and endurance. Yet, recent research out of the University of Alabama recently reported that older people – particularly women – may only need to exercise 1 day a week to achieve significant results.

Their study about the link between exercise and life expectancy measured the muscle strength and endurance benefits gained in groups doing aerobic/resistance training 1-3 times a week. All of the groups benefited in strength and endurance; yet, there were no significant difference in gains between the groups who spent less time versus those who spent more time.

So, a 1 day a week prescription of combining both aerobic and resistance training may work better time-wise for some people. If your sit/stand score shows that you are making significant progress than this formula could work for you. However, I should add that if you need to lose weight as well, exercising only 1 day a week might not help you much in that area. Get your weight to a normal level and then perhaps you could go to 1 day per week exercise maintenance.

Doctors have long known that your muscle-bone strength, physical endurance, heart-lung capacity, and flexibility can determine how healthy and independent you’ll stay as you get older.

Doctors have long known that your muscle-bone strength, physical endurance, heart-lung capacity, and flexibility can determine how healthy and independent you’ll stay as you get older. So, don’t be surprised the next time you go for your yearly physical if your doctor asks you to sit on the floor and scores you as you try to stand up. But knowing your sit/stand score can tell you where your longevity fitness level is and what you need to work on.

The Magic 5 Types of Exercise That Help You Live Longer

Healthy cholesterol levels, as well as chemical inflammation markers in your blood tests, are good indicators of your overall heart health. They can give your doctor a pretty good picture of what your general life expectancy might be. Yet, another less talked about factor is the actual physical strength and stamina of your cardiac muscle itself.

Is it strong and able to withstand sudden jolts from physical and emotional stressors? Do you get a little (or a lot) short of breath with your heart racing when you exert yourself, get angry or upset? If so, you’ll want to do you and your heart a big favor by adding 20-30 minutes, a few times a week, of “lifespan extending” exercise to your routine.

  1.  Stair climbing. If you’re still working and you work in a building with several floors, make use of the stairwell a few times a day. It helps build cardiorespiratory stamina. Your heart muscle weakens without adequate oxygen and harder aerobic exercise, such as stair climbing, can build your heart/lung capacity faster. A study out of Switzerland a few years back showed that people who stopped using escalators and elevators during their day cut their risk of dying prematurely by 15%. Another Harvard University study showed that climbing 35 flights or more flights of stairs a week increased lifespan significantly. But even if you’re not working, and you have a flight of stairs in your home, take a 5-10 minute “stair run” break by walking/jogging up and down the stairs a few times. You can also use a stair stepper at the gym. Set it for 10-15 flights of stairs at moderate intensity and notice the effect on your lungs/heartbeat.
  2. Running/Sprinting. Doing fast “sprint” runs a few times a week helps your heart muscle strengthen against sudden jolts of exertion and/or stress. I personally think these are easier to do on a stationary treadmill, but if you want to do them outside, or in a gym with a stopwatch, that’s fine too. To start, set your timer for 60 seconds and run/spring as fast as you can. Then stop. Rest for 120 seconds, and then repeat. Do for a set of 6 to start for 2 weeks, and then start increasing in intensity. On a treadmill, set the resistance a little higher each time. This will build cardiac stamina.
  3. Cycling/spinning. Riding your bicycle outdoors in beautiful weather is a great way to relax. But, unless you’ve got the gears/resistance set higher, and you’re continuously pedaling at a faster speed, or hill climbing, you’ll burn some calories but you won’t do much to strengthen your heart. If you choose to use a “spin cycle” like those at the gym, warm up for 10 minutes doing moderately fast cycling, and then do 1-2 minute interval very fast/higher resistance spins, repeating a set of 5 to start.
  4. Swimming. Likewise, lolling around leisurely in a pool won’t do a lot for your cardiac stamina/lifespan either. You have to actually swim. Start with laps, 10 back and forth, depending on the length of the pool, and then increase to 20. If the pool you use has a “resistance river” in it, try walking against the flow a few times, and then running several laps with the flow. If there is no resistance river, go to the shallow, 3 foot end, and jog back and forth across it 10-20 times. The water takes the impact of your knees and allows you to still get the benefit of running. Get some pool shoes if the bottom is rough.
  5. Faster walking. Just taking a walk around your city, subdivision, on the bike trail, helps build strength and endurance in your heart function. But you have to step up the pace some to a moderately fast walk, about the pace of jogging, but still walking. This takes the impact off your knees but keeps your lungs taking in oxygen rapidly, burning fat, and works your heart muscle. Now, you have to put at least a little bit of time into doing these types of exercise each week – but you don’t have to become an athlete. Exercise researchers publishing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine say that 150 minutes a week – that’s 30 minutes 5 times a week – will extend your life by at least 5 years.

Yet, on the days you can only find 10-20 minutes, I’ll take that too – moving quickly for less time is much better than sitting for a longer time. Researchers now say that sitting for more than a few hours at a time, per day, can decrease your lifespan as well as decrease your metabolism and increase your weight.

If you sit at a desk several hours a day, get up every 50 minutes for a 10 minute “movement” break. Take a run/walk up that flight of stairs in your building, take a brisk walk around the grounds (if possible), do jumping jacks, run in place, jump rope, turn on some music and dance, put a rebounder in your office, etc. Suggest to your boss, or supervisor that 10 minute exercise breaks throughout the day really boosts productivity as well as employee health.

Stay Well,
Ron Blankstein, M.D.

Ronald Blankstein, M.D.

Ron Blankstein, MD, FACC, FASNC, FSCCT, FASPC is the Director of Cardiac Computed Tomography, Associate Director of the Cardiovascular Imaging Program, Co-Director of the Cardiovascular Imaging Training Program, and a Preventive Cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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