Study Finds the Benefits of Being Fit Are Limitless

A new study finds endurance athletes are more likely to outlive all other fitness groups—even their highly fit counterparts.

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The relationship between endurance and greater longevity is something many multisport athletes have faith in, and now comes a large-scale study to back the belief. The findings, published in October’s JAMA Network Open, show that those with elite fitness live longer, and the health benefits of extreme cardiovascular training may be limitless.

A group of researchers and physicians at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio wanted to analyze whether there is a connection between elite fitness and longevity, and whether people can exercise too much and potentially shorten their life spans. To find out, the researchers pulled the health records of 122, 007 middle-aged and older men and women who had completed treadmill stress tests at the clinic (as part of regular checkups or physician-ordered tests) from January 1, 1991 to December 31, 2014. A treadmill stress test involves a patient jogging on a treadmill at a progressively greater pace until he or she cannot continue. Using the records, the patients were grouped by age- and sex-matched cardiorespiratory fitness and placed into performance groups: low fitness, below average fitness, above average fitness, high fitness, and elite fitness. The researchers then checked death records after people had completed their stress tests—the median follow-up period was 8.4 years.

Not surprisingly, extreme cardiorespiratory fitness in the elite group was associated with “the lowest risk-adjusted all-cause mortality compared with all other performance groups,” the study finds. The elite fitness group outlived even those in the high fitness group, and these elite patients were about 80 percent less likely to die prematurely than patients with the lowest endurance. Not only did extreme cardiorespiratory fitness correlate with greater longevity, there was “no observed upper limit of benefit,” the study finds.

“We did not see any indication that you can be too fit,” Dr. Wael Jaber, the study’s senior author and a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, tells The New York Times.

It’s a finding that seems to contradict studies that have trickled out in the past few years indicating that there may be a U-shaped association between exercise duration, frequency and intensity, and all-cause mortality. For decades, researchers have been focused on the lowest end of the exercise spectrum in an effort to combat obesity rather than the highest because, let’s face it, most people don’t overdo it. The scope of this latest study seems to be a score for triathletes, but don’t take it as a green light to go nuts without medical supervision. Note genetics and other considerations, such as socioeconomic status, were not factored into the study.

As Jaber tells the Times, the takeaway is something we already know: “I think we can say, based on this study and others, that it is a very good idea to exercise if you hope for a long and healthy life.”

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