July 22, 2024

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Strong link between cardio fitness and long-term health

Strong link between cardio fitness and long-term health


High cardiorespiratory fitness can reduce the risk of mortality and morbidity by almost 20%, world-first research shows.

Woman jogging

Regular cardio exercise such as running, cycling, or swimming has been shown to increase long-term health and life expectancy.

New research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests cardiorespiratory fitness is a ‘strong and consistent predictor’ of morbidity and mortality among adults.


Led by the University of South Australia (UniSA), the research is the first to collate all evidence looking at possible links between cardiorespiratory fitness and health outcomes among adults, using more than 20 million observations from around 200 unique cohort studies.


To measure cardiorespiratory fitness and its impact on health, the team tracked metabolic equivalents (METs), which measure the amount of oxygen consumed while sitting at rest. They found that for every 1-MET increase in cardiorespiratory fitness, risk of death can be reduced by 11–17%, with risk of heart disease reduced by 18%.


For most people, a 1-MET increase in cardiorespiratory fitness can be achieved through a regular aerobic exercise program, according to the authors.


Co-author and UniSA Professor Grant Tomkinson said cardiorespiratory fitness – the ability to perform physical activity for a long period of time such as running, cycling, and swimming – is ‘probably the most important type of fitness’ for health.


‘Prolonged cardiorespiratory fitness is strongly and consistently associated with all types of premature death and incident disease – spanning heart failure, depression, diabetes, dementia and even cancer,’ he said.


‘We summarised the evidence linking cardiorespiratory fitness to numerous health outcomes and found that those with low levels are far more likely to die early or develop chronic conditions like heart disease later in life.’


Preventive healthcare is part of GPs’ daily remit, with routine discussions around lifestyle, including physical activity, taking place with the almost nine in 10 Australians who visit a GP every year.


Encouraging regular exercise and good eating habits, as well as other lifestyle measures such as social prescribing are all ‘tools to better health’ according to the RACGP, whose Guidelines for preventive activities in general practice cite the importance of the GP–patient relationship in reaching goals of maintaining or improving health.


With the research demonstrating the benefits of regular cardio exercise, lead author Dr Justin Lang, who is Adjunct Professor at UniSA and the Public Health Agency of Canada, said the ‘onus for improvement’ should fall on both healthcare providers and the individual.


‘It should … be routinely assessed in clinical and public health practice, so that we can support people to improve their health outcomes,’ he said.


‘Through regular assessment, clinicians and exercise professionals could better identify adults at greater risk of early death and initiate exercise programs aimed at increasing cardiorespiratory fitness through regular physical activity.’


Findings from the study show that cardiorespiratory fitness is associated with the largest risk reduction for cardiovascular mortality among those living with cardiovascular disease when comparing high versus low cardiorespiratory fitness.


In addition, high cardiorespiratory fitness is also strongly associated with lower risk of incident chronic conditions such as hypertension, stroke, atrial fibrillation, dementia and depression, and poor prognosis in those with existing chronic conditions.


In Australia, an estimated 11.6 million people (47%) have a chronic condition, which contributes to two thirds of the burden of disease. It is estimated that 38% of this disease burden can be prevented through a reduction in modifiable risk factors such as overweight and obesity, physical inactivity, dietary risks, and alcohol, tobacco and other drug use.


Dr Lang said the study is ‘a timely reminder’ of fitness being a strong marker of health.


‘Clearly, cardiorespiratory fitness is as an important factor for good health,’ he said.


‘People can make meaningful improvements through additional moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking, at least 150 minutes a week. And as they improve their fitness, their risk of death and disease will decline.’


The authors state the ‘consistency of evidence across a variety of health outcomes’ demonstrates the need to incorporate the importance of cardiorespiratory fitness in routine health practices.


Professor Tomkinson said the take-home message is simple.


‘If you do a lot of “huff and puff” exercise, then your risk of dying early or developing diseases in the future is reduced,’ he said.


‘If you avoid exercise your health may suffer.’


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