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Fitness, Not Fatness, Predicts a Longer Life

People in good shape tend to outlive folks who aren't, study finds

TUESDAY, Dec. 4 (HealthDay News) -- In the quest for a longer life, a new study suggests fit is where it's at -- even if you're fat.

Overweight and obese seniors who were physically fit outlived their contemporaries -- even thin ones who weren't physically fit, the researchers said.

"Cardio-respiratory fitness is a strong determinate of mortality in older men and women," said lead researcher Steven N. Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health.

"Older individuals need to be concerned about their fitness level," Blair added. "There is perhaps too much focus on body weight, and fitness is only an afterthought."

Adequate fitness can be achieved with 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day, such as brisk walking, regardless of your weight, Blair said.

The findings are published in the Dec. 5 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

For the study, Blair's team looked at the relationship between body fat, fitness and longevity in 2,603 men and women aged 60 and older who took part in the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study. During 12 years of follow-up, 450 people died.

Among overweight people in the study, 23 percent were classified as unfit, as were 53 percent of obese people, Blair said. "You really can't tell if a person is fit by looking at them," he said.

People who were fit were more than 50 percent less likely to die than unfit people, regardless of weight -- meaning overweight but fit people tended to outlive leaner people who weren't in good shape. And fit folks were less likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, Blair said.

The people who died were older, had lower fitness levels, and had more cardiovascular risk factors.

To get fit and stay fit, Blair recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least five days a week. "You don't even have to do the 30 minutes all at once. Three 10-minute walks a day five days a week will get you out of this unfit category and get you at least moderately fit," he said.

One heart expert agreed that the new study highlights the importance of being physically fit.

"Numerous studies have provided evidence that physical fitness is associated with lower mortality risk," said Dr. Gregg C. Fonarow, a professor of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Furthermore, while having increased body-mass index indicating obesity is associated with excess risk of mortality, this relationship is significantly attenuated in individuals who exercise and demonstrate good physical fitness.

"Being physically fit essentially neutralized the excess mortality risk associated with obesity whereas being unfit was independently associated with excess deaths regardless of body mass or other measures of adiposity [body fat]," Fonarow added.

More information

For more on fitness for older adults, visit the American Medical Association.

SOURCES: Steven N. Blair, P.E.D., professor, Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina, Columbia; Gregg C. Fonarow, M.D., professor, cardiology, University of California, Los Angeles; Dec. 5, 2007, Journal of the American Medical Association

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