Medical research consistently shows a connection between exercise and longevity. A recent 20-year study concluded that any increase in exercise is beneficial, regardless of the subject’s age or current level of activity.
But what about people at the absolute peak of physical condition? Will your “hyperfit” marathon-running neighbor win the race for longevity?
The answer appears to be a qualified “yes,” but it’s important to take a closer look at the evidence.
“Peak levels of physical conditioning do equate to lower mortality rates and better longevity— to an extent,” said Jeff Cournoyer, an exercise physiologist and athletic trainer with KinEx Performance. “There is a large body of evidence to support the notion that increased activity has a positive effect on lifespan … but the research is a bit more scarce when it comes to elite or high level fitness individuals in the elderly population.
“Thankfully, newer research does support this notion.”
Cournoyer explained that the common metric for measuring physical condition is VO2 Max, which measures the body’s ability to consume oxygen.
In laboratory tests, it’s measured by running on a treadmill and measuring the amount of oxygen you consume while working hardest. For reference, a sedentary person may have a score of about 30, while top athletes can have a score in the 80s.
The key to relative fitness, Cournoyer said, is what percentile of the population your VO2 Max score puts you at a given age. “A 42-year-old male with a VO2 Max score of 49 would be considered in the 80th percentile, but at 62, the score required to be in the 80th percentile drops to 41. While the absolute number declines, his percentile rankings do not.
“It is the percentile ranking that speaks to a lower risk of mortality, as opposed to the absolute number. So a 62-year-old man whose VO2 Max is in the 80th percentile has a significantly lower risk of mortality (and therefore a better longevity) than someone of the same age who ranks in the 20th percentile.”
And what does a place in those higher percentiles mean later in life? Cournoyer pointed to a 2015 study published in the Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapy Journal demonstrated that VO2 percentiles remain meaningful metrics for health in people age 99 and beyond.
Translation: Older people should keep on exercising (being careful to work with your healthcare pros to avoid hurting themselves). And barring accidents or illness, superathletes should remain relatively super for the long run.
A new test of hyperfitness
Now, new research in the field of hyperfitness has focused on the elite women of the United States armed forces.
Since the Department of Defense opened up all military combat jobs to women in 2015, at least 30 have become Army Rangers, two have graduated Marine infantry school, and three have made it past the initial assessment phase of Green Beret Training.
While those numbers might seem small, these women have passed some of the military’s hardest mental and physical tests. So what makes these women hyperfit, and what pushes them to want to compete with the boys?
That’s the question Army medical researchers are hoping to answer with a new study. Recently launched in the basement of an Army base in Natick, Massachusetts, the study is voluntary and is open to women who have passed these grueling military tests, reports the Associated Press.
The goal of the study, according to Holly McClung, a nutritional physiologist at the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Massachusetts, is to identify the mental, physical, and psychological attributes that the women who pass these military training milestones have. Something she believes will help other women similarly succeed.
McClung and Julie Hughes, a research physiologist, will measure the participant’s VO2 max score.
“This is a unique historical time,” Hughes told the AP. “There’s this group of women who made it through the training, so we want to get them to at least do these observational investigations to explore what makes them unique.”
The study will have two or three people tested at a time to spur competition, but will also include blood, calcium, and iron-level tests; bone density scans; and other written assessments and interviews. The tests are intended to evaluate their overall toughness and pinpoint biological and physiological markers that define them as hyperfit.