Could this shorten your lifespan?

Could this shorten your lifespan?

Want to live longer? Take a look at your level of physical activity and make sure you don’t have poor physical fitness.

It’s been well established that your aerobic capacity can lead to a longer life.

An in-depth study shows poor physical fitness may be second only behind smoking as a contributor to premature death.

Past studies tracked people for about 10 to 20 years. For this study, researchers began in 1963 and tracked a group of then 50-year-old men in Sweden. They tracked them for the next 50 years.

The researchers checked measurables such as weight, blood pressure and cholesterol. They also learned about the subjects’ exercise and smoking habits.

The importance of aerobic fitness

The researchers also studied the subjects’ aerobic capacity, which is the result of both genetics and lifestyle.

Your aerobic capacity measures your ability to sustain a set level of aerobic activity (physical exertion or exercise) for a specific length of time. An aerobic activity is one in which your body needs to move more oxygen from your blood to your muscles than when you’re sedentary or doing a less strenuous activity. Running, fast walking, cycling, rowing, swimming and cross-country skiing are examples of aerobic activities — efforts that make you breath noticeably harder.

You may hear aerobic capacity called VO2 max. The V stands for volume, and O2 stands for oxygen. Your VO2 max is when you’re exerting maximum physical effort and breathing as hard as you can.

The researchers divided the subjects into three groups: low, medium and high aerobic capacity.

The scientists did follow-up testing every 10 years, also charting deaths among the men.

The researchers compared when subjects died to a number of health parameters, including their aerobic capacity.

Influences on lifespan

It’s not a surprise that smoking made the biggest difference in lifespan — substantially shortening lives.

However, low aerobic capacity followed closely behind. Subjects in the study who were in the low aerobic capacity group had a 21 percent higher risk of dying prematurely compared to the medium aerobic capacity group.

The low capacity group had about a 42% greater risk of premature death than the high aerobic capacity group.

Additionally, the study found that subjects with high aerobic capacity but high blood pressure or high cholesterol tended to live longer than men in the low aerobic capacity group who had good blood pressure and healthy cholesterol levels.

What does it all mean?

Based on this study and a good deal of other research, we know that regular exercise has a number of positive effects for you.


  • Burns calories to help you control your weight.
  • Boosts the immune system to help ward off illness.
  • Increases stamina to help you keep going longer.
  • Reduces risks for conditions such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke and some cancers.
  • Strengthens your heart.
  • Helps keep arteries clear of damaging plaques.
  • Boosts your mood. (Your body releases feel-good hormones during exercise – heard of runner’s high?)
  • And as we just explored, exercise can help you live longer.

Dr. Katrice Brooks is a family medicine physician at the Aurora Health Center in Greenfield, Wis.

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About the Author

Dr. Katrice Brooks
Dr. Katrice Brooks

Katrice Brooks, MD, is a family medicine physician at the Aurora Health Center in Greenfield, WI.