A new study published in the JAMA Network Open found that a lack of exercise posed a health risk equal to or greater than traditional factors such as smoking, heart disease, and diabetes. Conversely, cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) was found to have a direct correlation with health and longevity.
The study is one of the largest of its kind, evaluating over 122,000 patients between 1991 and 2014. All patients had been referred for exercise treadmill testing, which does not rely on self-reporting and is considered an objective measure of aerobic fitness.
Patients were categorized as elite performers, high performers, above average performers, below average performers, and low performers, with elite performers above the 97.6th percentile and low performers below the 26th percentile. Dr. Wael Jaber, a cardiologist and co-author of the study, explained the risks of a sedentary lifestyle:
Being unfit should be considered as strong of a risk factor as hypertension, diabetes and smoking — if not stronger than all of them.”
He emphasized the gravity of the information in a statement to CNN, stating, “Being unfit on a treadmill or in an exercise stress test has a worse prognosis, as far as death, than being hypertensive, being diabetic, or being a current smoker. We’ve never seen something as pronounced as this and as objective as this.”
It’s probably not news that fitness and an active lifestyle can lead to a healthy life, but the study shows that a sedentary lifestyle is as dangerous as many major diseases. “People who do not perform very well on a treadmill test have almost double the risk of people with kidney failure [who are] on dialysis,” says Jaber. “If you compare the risk of sitting versus the highest performing on the exercise test, the risk is about three times higher than smoking.”
But unlike heart disease, smoking, or diabetes, low CRF has a simple cure: exercise.
“Aerobic fitness is something that most patients can control,” Jaber said. Indeed, the study’s conclusion found it imperative that health care professionals encourage patients to achieve and maintain a high level of fitness. In a climate where doctors prescribe medication for almost any ailment, good old-fashioned exercise may be your best bet for living a long, healthy life.
“Cardiovascular disease and diabetes are the most expensive diseases in the United States. We spend more than $200 billion per year treating these diseases and their complications. Rather than pay huge sums for disease treatment, we should be encouraging our patients and communities to be active and exercise daily,” said Dr. Jordan Metzl, sports medicine physician and author of “The Exercise Cure.”
This proves even more true for older patients, with the study finding that for those over 70, elite performers had a nearly 30% reduced risk of mortality compared to high performers. According to the study, high CRF in older patients is likely to indicate long-term exercise habits, and the cumulative benefits of high aerobic fitness may contribute to a more significant effect on long-term survival.
Additionally, there seems to be no upper limit to the benefits of exercise. There have been concerns that extreme exercise could lead to adverse effects, but the findings show that there is no level of fitness at which health benefits cease. As fitness levels go up, mortality rates go down.
Americans are over-medicated. We’re forced to administer an ever-growing schedule of vaccines to our children, are prescribed antibiotics at an alarming rate, and have become addicted to dangerous opioids due to their misuse for chronic pain. Heart disease, one of the primary risks associated with low CRF, has a clear connection to cancer, while the cost of conventional treatments continues to skyrocket.
We’ve discussed the benefits of exercise before, including detoxification, immune support, and improved mood. Exercise is something we can all control, and the evidence tells us that an active style leads to a longer life. Dr. Jaber said it best: “You should demand a prescription from your doctor for exercise.”