By Michael Krueger
A study was recently released that indicated many centenarians have lived a long life filed with incredibly bad health habits including lack of exercise, smoking tobacco, and eating habits that would make a frat boy gag. Unfortunately, some people take those results and conclude that this proves that it doesn’t matter how they behave with regard to their health and fitness. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
No one knows how long they are going to live. A truck running a stoplight can put an end to a promising life in a microsecond. The quality of your time, though, is greatly within your control. I can’t tell you the number of times someone has observed my eating and exercise habits and has commented, “What, you think you’re going to live forever?” I’m in this life for quality since I don’t know what my quantity is going to be. I want to feel healthy and strong every minute of every day, no matter how many minutes that turns out to be.
I have heard people say that they believe their heart will only beat so many times and they aren’t going to waste any of them exercising. This is one of my favorite health myths to debunk. The following shows how that just isn’t so.
Let’s say that your resting heart rate is 80 beats per minute all day long. I’m not taking into consideration that your heart rate drops when you are sleeping or the natural variations throughout the day, because that just complicates the math too much. That is a low rate for a nonexerciser, but we will use it for convenience sake. So 80 x 60 x 24 x 365 = 42,048,000 beats per year.
Now, if you are a regular exerciser, we’ll say that your resting heart rate is 60 beats per minute all day long. So 60 x 60 x 24 x 365 = 31,536,000 beats per year. But, in addition to that there is the increased load of exercising. Let’s say that you are exercising for three hours per week, 1.5 cardio and 1.5 strength training. That would be a good amount of time to invest in a program. Let’s also assume that you keep your heart rate elevated to 180/bpm during that entire 3 hours (an unlikely scenario, but it makes the math easier). Since you are raising your rate by an additional 120/bpm above baseline, that would be 120 x 60 x 3 x 52 = 1,123,200 additional beats per year. Add that to the resting heart rate, and you get 32,659,200 for the year. That still saves you 9,388,000 beats per year over the nonexerciser.
The Adventist Health Study done at Loma Linda University has shown that the five health behaviors promoted by the Seventh-Day Adventist church for well over 100 years increased the average life span of its adherents, compared to the general population, by up to 10 years (though they still didn’t produce a disproportionate number of centenarians). Those behaviors are not smoking, eating a plant-based diet heavy on legumes, eating nuts several times each week, exercising regularly, and maintaining a normal body weight.
A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine stated in an unequivocal fashion that “Exercise capacity is a more powerful predictor of mortality among men than other established risk factors for cardiovascular disease.” That is a very strong statement in favor of exercise no matter what your current condition might be.
Interestingly, it doesn’t take too terribly much activity to begin to reap the benefits of exercise. A brisk 20-minute walk every day is a sufficient beginning. Work your way up to 40 minutes, and you are really going to see some improvements.
After age adjustment, low exercise capacity was the best predictor of death from any cause, followed by pack-years of smoking. That means that low exercise capacity is a better predictor of premature death than even being a long-term smoker. In terms of reducing mortality from any cause, improving exercise capacity deservers as much attention as, if not more than, any of the other identified major risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, COPD, or peripheral vascular disease.
For anyone who is looking for a “miracle drug” to improve their life, they need to look no further than exercise. I have always felt that being fit and strong improved my life in every way, no matter how many years that might be. Now I see that I may get my maximum number of years by doing the activities that I love and would be doing anyway.
Now, that’s as good a deal as I could ever hope for.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.