Investing in fitness now pays health dividends later

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

What would you pay to keep from getting sick as you get older? How about a daily walk or other exercise? A new study suggests that’s exactly the right investment. In the study, people who were the most fit at midlife lived longer and spent less time being sick than middle-aged folks who weren’t fit.

There are many benefits to staying physically active and exercising daily. Exercise

  • strengthens the heart and lungs
  • makes blood vessels more flexible and responsive, improving circulation
  • controls blood pressure and cholesterol
  • helps muscles burn sugar
  • reduces stress
  • decreases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and other chronic conditions
  • preserves memory and prolongs life

Another important effect of exercise, one that doesn’t get enough attention, is that it improves fitness. Fitness is a measure of how well your heart, blood vessels, blood, and lungs work together to supply muscles with oxygen during sustained exercise. It also estimates how efficiently the muscles use the oxygen. Fitness also reflects your exercise capacity.

The most accurate fitness gauge requires complicated machinery and sensors to measure the maximum oxygen consumed during exercise. This is called VO2max. It can also be done using the kind of treadmill test that cardiologists commonly use to check for heart disease.

Fitness translates to better health later on

To explore the effect of fitness on health status in old age, researchers with the Cooper Institute in Dallas looked at information that had been gathered from more than 18,600 men and women who were part of another long-term health study. When the study began, their median age was 49. Fitness levels were measured using a type of treadmill test. Once a volunteer reached age 65, the researchers tracked his or her health with Medicare claims information.

Those who were the most fit at midlife were less likely over the course of the 26-year study to have died of coronary artery disease, Alzheimer’s, heart failure, diabetes and other chronic conditions, the researchers reported in Archives of Internal Medicine. Just over 2,400 people died during the study. In the last five years of their lives, the people who had been most fit at midlife spent about 50% less time with four or more chronic diseases than the least fit group and 34% more time with no or one chronic disease.

Find your fitness

How do you improve your fitness? Increase the amount and the intensity of exercise over time.

Exercise capacity is usually measured in metabolic equivalents (METs). One MET is the amount of oxygen used when sitting still or sleeping. Nonathletic, healthy, middle-aged men and women have peak exercise capacities in the range of 8 to 10 METs. Marathon runners can have values as high as 18 to 24.

But you don’t need an expensive exercise stress test to determine your fitness. Many fitness centers have exercise machines that show METs. Some home treadmills and elliptical trainers also show METs.

If you don’t have access to such a machine, or don’t like exercising on one, you can measure your current fitness with a simple walking test. All it takes is a one-mile track or level terrain that you know is one mile long. You’ll also need a stopwatch or watch with a second hand, paper, and a pen or pencil.

First, get yourself warmed up by walking briskly for a few minutes. Record the time and start walking as fast as you can. Push yourself, but don’t overdo it. When you cross the one-mile mark, record the time again. Calculate how many minutes it took to finish the mile.

Time in minutes to walk one mile
Fitness level 50-year-old woman 50-year-old man
Excellent under 14:42 under 13:24
Good 14:42 to 15:36 13:24 to 14:24
Average 15:37 to 17:00 14:25 to 15:12
Fair 17:01 to 18:06 15:13 to 16:30
Poor more than 18:06 more than 16:30

Don’t be concerned about how low your METs are now or how slow you walked. What’s important is to improve them. You can do this with regular exercise that challenges your body. That means working hard enough to speed up your heartbeat and breathing.

The intensity of exercise and the amount of time spent exercising that are needed to improve fitness differ from person to person. The goal is to increase your METs or decrease the number of minutes it takes you walk one mile. Don’t rush it. Improving fitness starts within weeks but will continue for months.


  1. heartbridgeretreats

    Daily exercise keeps you healthy and away from the illness. And the better investment for future so lets get started

  2. Suresh Bhave

    I would like to ask- can you please give similar tables for sixty and seventy year olds?

  3. Suresh Bhave

    The simplicity of the test is its greatest advantage. Anyone can test oneself. That’s great. I will be recommending it to my friends about whose health I feel most concerned.

  4. Lilah

    This is such a great reminder. Because of my arthritis I have struggled to find an exercise I was comfortable doing but I recently purchased a machine similar to the Power Plate and it has done wonders for me. So every day I get a little bit stronger.

  5. Toni B. Dix

    It is so important to do excerise and I know a lot of people like to think about the present but sometimes it is good investing in time for the future. People don´t know how crucial it is to at least go for a job once and a while.

  6. Tom

    Outstanding article..
    America’s have the worst diets in the world of none health food available to them on every turn. I believe this plays a large part.

  7. Ed Kish

    Wonderful article! This just proves just how much keeping fit could do for us.


  8. Dave

    In my opinion it’s extremely important to be in a good shape. I can’t say that I’m old, I’m under 25. However sport & fitness are my good friends.

    I know that according to research, exercising makes you more happy. It’s a fact.

    From my experience, I always feel myself better and have more energy after running or swimming.

    Fitness is a great thing.


  9. Ann

    Exercise is recommended to gain weight, to lose weight and also to maintain current weight level. To gain weight, we need to lift weight whereas to lose weight, we need to move our body weight.

    When we talk about our body we need to chuck logic and common sense out of the window because our body has its own logic that is quite separate from that of our mind. For example, if we eat less than our daily calorie requirement, logic and common sense suggests that we ought to lose weight. We don’t; in fact the opposite happens – we gain weight! The logic our body follows is that we are eating less probably because of famine or some other problem so the body conserves energy (you feel lethargic and dull), and converts whatever food it receives into fat. It does this because of the human evolutionary history that has been recorded in our genes. As we evolved, humans have been through famine and starvation. This has been recorded in our genes. So when we begin to eat less, the sirens go off and our body takes action to conserve energy and food – a basic survival strategy. We mention this to give you an insight into how our body ‘thinks’.


  10. wood

    Excellent article..
    The challenge really is most American are lazy:) I hope we have more fitness initiatives going on starting in the local community!


  11. Dave

    The generalizations you make in this article are scary, and a big part of the misinformation out there that gets ppl hurt and misguided. Your definition of fitness is bad, and your MSG of more exe is better is terrible.

  12. Anthony

    Fitness also reflects your exercise capacity.Just over 2,400 people died during the study. In the last five years of their lives, the people who had been most fit at midlife spent about 50% less time with four or more chronic diseases than the least fit group and 34% more time with no or one chronic disease.

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