"Fitness" Age is a Much Better Predictor of Longevity Than Chronological Age

A new study of fitness and lifespan suggests that a person’s so-called fitness age – determined primarily by a measure of cardiovascular endurance – is a better predictor of longevity than chronological age. The good news is that unlike actual age, one's fitness age can decrease.  The concept of fitness age was developed by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, who have, for years, studied fitness and how it relates to wellness.  Fitness age is determined primarily by VO2max, which is a measure of the body’s ability to take in and utilize oxygen. VO2max indicates current cardiovascular endurance.  It also can be used to compare one individual's fitness level with that of other people the same age, providing, in the process, that person with a personal fitness age. If VO2max is below average for your age group, then your fitness age is older than your actual age. But if you compare well, you can turn back the clock. That means a 50-year-old man conceivably could have a fitness age between 30 and 75, depending on his VO2max. Usually, precise measurement of aerobic capacity requires high-tech treadmill testing.  However, to work around that, the Norwegian scientists decided several years ago to develop an easy method for estimating VO2max. They recruited almost 5,000 Norwegians between the ages of 20 and 90, measured their aerobic capacity with treadmill testing and also checked a variety of health parameters, including waist circumference, heart rate, and exercise habits.  Subsequently, they determined that those parameters could, if plugged into an algorithm, provide a very close approximation of someone’s VO2max. With this in mind, the most meaningful question, in my opinion, is whether this tool is useful measurement in terms of predicting longevity. Will having a younger fitness age add years to your life? Does an advanced fitness age mean you will die sooner?  In a new study, which was published this past June in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the scientists turned to a large trove of data about more than 55,000 Norwegian adults who had completed extensive health questionnaires beginning in the 1980s. The scientists used the volunteers’ answers to estimate each person’s VO2max and fitness age - then they checked death records. It turned out that people whose calculated VO2max was 85 percent or more below the average for their age — meaning that their fitness age was significantly above their chronological years — had an 82 percent higher risk of dying prematurely than those whose fitness age was the same as or more youthful than their actual age. According to the study’s authors, the results suggest that fitness age may predict a person’s risk of early death more accurately than traditional risk factors like being overweight, having high cholesterol levels or blood pressure, and smoking. The scientists were able to use the data from this new study to refine and expand an online calculator for determining fitness age.  You can find the calculator here. Thankfully, fitness age can be altered, said Ulrik Wisloff, professor at the K.G. Jebsen Center for Exercise in Medicine at The Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who led the study. His advice if your fitness age exceeds your chronological years or is not as low as you would like is simple: “Just exercise.”  In fact, he said almost any type and amount of exercise helps to increase your VO2max and lower your fitness age, potentially increasing lifespan. In upcoming studies, Wisloff and his colleagues will compare directly how well fitness age juxtaposes with other, more established measures of mortality risk, such as the Framingham Risk Calculator (which does not include exercise habits among its variables). They also hope to expand their studies to include more types of participants, since adult Norwegians may not be representative of all of the world’s population. That being said, even in advance of this additional data, there is no harm in working to lower your fitness age, “There is a huge benefit,” Dr.  Wisloff said, “larger than any known medical treatment, in improving your fitness level to what is expected for your age group or, even better, to above it.” Reference: Reynolds, Gretchen. What's Your Fitness Age?  New York Times, October 15 2014.