Even if you are a fit and healthy person with no signs of any heart or blood vessel disease, low cardiorespiratory fitness could be a warning sign of future problems.
This is the finding of a new study from the European Society of Cardiology.
Cardiorespiratory fitness refers to the ability of the blood circulation and respiratory systems to supply adequate oxygen to muscles during sustained physical activity.
The main measure of it is VO2max — the maximum rate of oxygen consumption during exercise that increases with intensity.
In the current study, 4527 fit and healthy men and women with no history of cardiovascular or lung disease, cancer or raised blood pressure took part in the research.
Their cardiorespiratory fitness was assessed when they joined a large, population-based health study in Norway (the HUNT3 study) between 2006-2008.
Wearing a face mask and a heart rate monitor, they warmed up for ten minutes on a treadmill before running faster and faster. Their oxygen intake was measured to establish their VO2max.
The team also gathered information on tobacco use, alcohol consumption, family history of cardiovascular disease, physical activity, weight, height and waist circumference, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
After an average follow-up time of nearly 9 years, the researchers found that greater cardiorespiratory fitness was linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks.
Only 147 participants (3.3%) were diagnosed with heart disease or died from it, or required intervention to unblock clogged arteries during this period.
In addition, the team found that, in both men and women, the risk of cardiovascular problems fell by 15% for every extra unit of measurement of cardiorespiratory fitness — metabolic equivalents (METs).
METs measure the oxygen required for the energy expended on physical activity, with one MET being the amount needed if a person is sitting quietly, while high exertion such as running would use about eight METs.
This shows that greater cardiorespiratory fitness protects against both chronic and acute heart and blood vessel problems. Even a small increase in fitness could have a large impact on health.
The results encourage the use of exercise as preventive medicine. A few months of regular exercise may be an efficient way of reducing cardiovascular risk.
A strength of the study is that cardiorespiratory fitness was measured with a gold-standard maximal exercise test of peak oxygen uptake (VO2peak) — the first to do this in a healthy sample of the general population.
Previous studies that have linked fitness to disease risk in healthy populations are mainly based on self-report or less accurate estimates.
A limitation of the study is that participating in voluntary exercise testing introduces the possibility that more active people might choose to join the study, which might reduce its applicability to the general population.
Dr Bjarne Nes, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), is one study author. The lead author of the study is Dr Jon Magne Letnes.
The study is published in the European Heart Journal.
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Source: European Heart Journal.