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Does exercise help you live longer? This is a question that has been debated for years. Things have certainly changed in the last several years as conclusions have finally been drawn from ongoing studies on exercise. Now there is unequivocal data that proves regular vigorous exercise will enable you to live longer. In fact, it has been estimated that there are approximately 250,000 deaths in the United States each year that result from a lack of exercise. In this article, I will review some of the recent literature that helps to explain this phenomena. Recent research has led the Center for Disease Control, the American College of Sports Medicine and other groups to review and update previous recommendations about exercise. They now officially recommend that all Americans exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes, preferably daily. The exercise can be accomplished in increments of as little as five to ten minutes.

Dr. Ralph Paffenbarger is an epidemiologist who has been researching the medical benefits of exercise for years. Drs. Paffenbarger, Lee and Hsieh published an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in April of 1995. They studied 17,321 Harvard University alumni in a prospective study that started in 1962. They interviewed the alumni at intervals to evaluate their activity level. The study has clearly demonstrated that exercise is associated with a lower death rate. Furthermore, the more you exercise, the greater the benefit. Vigorous exercise was defined as an activity that increases the heart rate and maintains it at a fairly rapid rate. Examples of vigorous exercise would be jogging, singles tennis, or vigorous walking. Other excellent forms of vigorous exercise would be swimming, racquetball, biking, and aerobic classes. In addition, the lower rates of death were from all causes and not just from heart disease.

Dr. Ken Cooper, of the Cooper Institute of Aerobic Research, found that exercise was associated with a 40 % reduction in heart attacks in females and a 60 % reduction in heart attacks in males. In another study, he found that people who were in the lower 20 % of cardiovascular fitness had a death rate that was three times higher than the most fit group. The study also showed that men taking up exercise, even after the age of 60, will increase their life expectancy.

Another study of Swedish women demonstrated that mortality was dramatically reduced in women who had physically active jobs or who frequently participated in a leisure-time activity. It was concluded that decreases in physical activity, as well as low initial levels of activity, are strong risk factors for mortality in women, and that their predictive values persist for many years.

Dr. Sherman reported on 1,404 women aged 50 to 74 who were free of cardiovascular disease. The most active group had a 33 % lower death rate than the least active. Therefore, it was concluded that woman who were more active lived longer.

In addition, exercise helps you live longer by reducing your chance of death from causes other than just heart disease. Several studies have shown that colon cancer is reduced 30 % in individuals who exercise regularly. The reason for this reduction is not known. I personally feel it is from improving the function of the immune system. The immune system is greatly affected by stress, and exercise certainly reduces stress. Another advantage of exercise is its positive impact on the treatment of depression. A study published in Sports Medicine found that counseling combined with exercise was more effective than counseling alone.

The Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that the incidence of breast cancer was significantly reduced in females who regularly exercised during the childbearing years.

Osteoporosis can be reduced by working with weights twice a week in post-menopausal women. Exercise increases bone density, and improves strength as well as balance which, in turn can reduce the risk of falls in the elderly. This reduces the mortality rate, since fractured hips are associated with a fairly high death rate.

The JAMA reported that the incidence of gastrointestinal hemorrhage was decreased in elderly people who exercised regularly.

In conclusion, it is apparent that exercise can make you live longer. Our society has enjoyed a gradually increasing lifespan which I believe is partially due to the emphasis on exercise in our society over the past several decades.


1. Lee IM; Hsieh CC; Paffenbarger RS. Exercise intensity and longevity in men. JAMA 1995 Apr 19;273(15) :1179-84.

2. Lissner L, et al. Physical activity levels and changes in relation to longevity. A prospective study of Swedish women. Am J Epidemiol 1996 Jan 1:143(1) :54-62.

3. Sherman SE, et al. Does exercise reduce mortality rates in the elderly? Experience from the Framingham Heart Study. Am Heart J 1994 Nov:128(5) :965-72.

4. Sherman SE, et al. Physical activity and mortality in women in the Framingham Heart Study. Am Heart J 1994 Nov:128(5) :879-84.

5. Paffenbarger RS, et al. The association of changes in physical-activity level and other lifestyle characteristics with mortality among men. N Engl J Med 1993 Feb 25;328(8) :538-45.

6. Thompson WG. Exercise and health: fact or hype? South Med J 1994 May;87(5) :567-74.

7. Weyerer S, et al. Physical exercise and psychological health. Sports Med 1994 Feb:17(2) :108-16.

8. Pate R, et al. Physical activity and public health. JAMA Feb. 1, 1995 pp. 402- 407.

9. Fiatarone MA, et al. Exercise training and nutritional supplementation for physical frailty in very elderly people. N Eng J Med 1994 Jun 23;330(25) :1769-75.

10. Pahor M, et al. Physical activity and risk of severe gastrointestinal hemorrhage in older persons. JAMA 1994 Aug 24-31:272(8) :595-9.


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