Bronka Sundstrom is shown here on Mt. Rainier with me in 2005. She is the oldest woman ever to have climbed Mt. Rainier, in only 1 day, at age 77. Don’t we all want to be fit, healthy and able to do the things we want to do when we’re older?
There is a direct relationship between exercise and longevity. Someone who is moderately active lives at least two years longer than a sedentary person. A simple formula states that for each hour of exercise, you will prolong your life by two hours. After stopping cigarette smoking, exercise is the single most important lifestyle decision for improving health and longevity. Exercise strengthens the heart, lowers risk for colon and breast cancer, strengthens bones, lowers risk for diabetes and stroke, lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, combats depression, and maintains muscle mass as we age (strength training is best for this).
The Cooper Clinic in Dallas studied 25,000 men over a 20-year period and found that the least fit men had a 70% higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease. The less fit men were also 50% more likely to die from all causes. Similar results were found in a smaller cohort of women.
The Cooper Clinic also found that the least fit 20% were 3.7 times more likely to develop diabetes over a six-year period, compared with the most fit 40%. Exercise enhances the muscle’s ability to respond to insulin and remove sugar form the circulation. Exercise also lowers body fat, which is implicated in the development of diabetes. Being sedentary increases the risk for colon cancer by at least 20% (some studies show a doubling or tripling of risk). Evidence also suggests risk for breast and prostate cancer is reduced.
Procedures like colonoscopies can be great screening tools and treatments for bowel cancer. But patients may be able to take measures at home to reduce their risk for this disease. According to the National Cancer Institute, people who exercise regularly have a 40% to 50% lower risk of colon cancer, compared with those who don’t exercise regularly.
A study by the National Cancer Institute found that people who engaged in leisure-time physical activity had life expectancy gains of as much as 4.5 years.
As we age, muscle and bone strength is essential for maintaining an independent lifestyle, and avoiding the kind of physical deterioration that often ends in a nursing home. Physical activity appears to stimulate the production of new white blood cells and remove older ones, thus boosting our immune defenses and helping to stave off infection and even cancer.
Of course, a person’s lifestyle factors can affect their longevity. Lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and being underweight or overweight predict mortality among the elderly. A study published in the BMJ set out to identify modifiable factors associated with longevity among adults aged 75 and older.The associations between leisure activity, not smoking, and increased survival still existed in those aged 75 years or more, with women’s lives extended by five years and men’s by six years. These associations, although reduced, were still present among people aged 85 or more and in those with chronic conditions. Their results suggest that encouraging healthy lifestyle behaviors even at advanced ages may enhance life expectancy, probably by reducing morbidity.
Moore SC, et al. Leisure Time Physical Activity of Moderate to Vigorous Intensity and Mortality: A Large Pooled Cohort Analysis. PLoS Medicine. November 6, 2012. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001335.
BMC Medicine, Oct. 10, 2014