The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


To Double the Odds of Seeing 85: Get a Move On

When It Comes to Longevity, Regular Exercise May Be the Most Potent Weapon Against Disease

The following article highlights Dr. Jarett Berry, one of our UTSW collaborators.  Dr. Berry is a vital contributor in the collaboration and will be the principal investigator on the multi-year study, “Physical Fitness and Long-Term Medicare Costs and Utilization.”  As a Medicare study update, Jarett and CI co-investigators have submitted the grant to National Institutes of Health (NIH). We have begun talks with several potential donors to go ahead and acquire the Medicare data prior to the NIH grant award. This allows us to begin the study between fitness in middle-age and Medicare charges across the lifespan.  We believe that this project represents a unique opportunity to address a question that could have significant implications for public health policy.

Dr. Berry's findings below came from analysis of the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study (CCLS) database. Learn More

Source: Wall Street Journal Online. Tuesday, March 9, 2010.

The leading edge of the baby boom generation turns 65 next year, which means a new milestone looms on the horizon: age 85.

So what do boomers need to do not just to survive to 85, but to live healthy lives into old age and not break the bank at the federal Medicare program?

The most important strategy, according to the latest research to look at the question, is to be physically active in middle age. "If you are fit in mid-life, you double your chance of surviving to 85," says Jarett Berry, a cardiologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Put another way: If you're not fit in your 50s, your projected life span "is eight years shorter than if you are fit," Dr. Berry says.


Dr. Berry's findings, presented last week in San Francisco at the American Heart Association's annual epidemiology and prevention conference, are based on an analysis of 1,765 men and women who had physical examinations performed during the 1970s and 1980s at the Cooper Institute, the Dallas-based birthplace of the aerobics movement. They are a reminder that despite an array of effective drugs and other medical advances, the front line for most of us in the battle to prevent heart disease and survive into old age lies in adopting healthy living habits.

Don McNelly, 89, says he has run 744 marathons in his life.

The report also underscores the importance of physical activity in maintaining overall health: Fitness even trumped smoking cessation in the magnitude of benefit among participants in the study—though not by much. The combination of being physically fit, not smoking and having low blood pressure was a powerful predictor of longevity.

"It's one more piece of data that says we all need to be moving in America," says Emelia Benjamin, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University School of Medicine, who wasn't involved with the study. "It's pretty clear that Americans want to take a pill, but we're all going to be bankrupt unless people start taking on these lifestyle changes."

Certainly it's well established that getting your heart rate up and breaking a sweat on a regular basis is good for your health. But two previous studies didn't find an association between exercise and longevity and a third turned up a relatively most link. [heartbeatBB]

Establishing a regular workout regimen remains elusive for many of us. "On average, we tend to participate in less physical activity and be less fit each year after about age 30," says Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, a cardiologist at Northwestern University in Chicago and senior investigator on the longevity study.

National guidelines recommended Americans get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week or 20 minutes of intense physical activity three times a week to maintain fitness. Twice-weekly weight-training sessions to strengthen muscles are also advised. National health survey data indicate about half of Americans report meeting those guidelines, but Dr. Lloyd-Jones and other experts believe it is far less than that.

People over age 85 are already the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, reflecting, among other things, a decline in smoking, falling deaths from cardiovascular disease and success against infectious diseases that once took a heavy toll among infants and children.

But aging for many means battles with arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease and other chronic and costly maladies. A burgeoning old-age population hobbled by illness would amount to an enormous public health dilemma, with challenges ranging from improving the quality of life of consumers to protecting the solvency of Medicare and other health programs.

Researchers say getting control of a combination of risk factors—including blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, smoking and diet—is emerging as an especially effective way to improve health and extend healthy longevity.

"If you make it to middle age with optimal risk numbers and healthy behavior, you've essentially abolished your risk of cardiovascular disease," says Dr. Lloyd-Jones. "It becomes a fountain of youth for your heart."

Regular exercise results in lower blood pressure, healthier cholesterol and lower blood sugar, Dr. Lloyd-Jones says, thus is an especially potent weapon against disease.

The 1,444 men and 321 women involved in the new survival-to-85-analysis were born before 1921. They were between ages 50 and 69 when had their initial physicals at the Cooper Institute, during which they underwent a special treadmill test to measure their aerobic capacity or cardio-respiratory fitness. Dr. Berry says this objective assessment may help explain why fitness emerged as such a significant factor in predicting longevity; previous studies relied on participants to estimate their physical activity, which they typically overestimate.

Blood pressure, smoking status and cholesterol were among traditional risk factors measured. People were excluded from the study if they had prior history of heart problems or cancer to provide a measure of fitness in the absence of symptomatic disease. The analysis didn't assess whether participants maintained fitness levels after the initial physical, nor did it include information on what medications participants may have been taking.

By 2006, the year by which all participants could reach at least age 85, researchers said 906 or 63% of the men, and 238, or 74% of the women were still alive. Dr. Berry and his colleagues separated the participants into five equal groups according to fitness levels and considered the lowest 20% as non-fit. Men were nearly 1.8 times as likely to reach 85 if they were fit as opposed to non-fit; for women, it was almost 2.2 times as likely.

One of the participants in the study, Ray C. Robbins, 89, who retired as president and chief executive officer of Lennox International Inc., says he spends 30 to 45 minutes on a treadmill most days and another 20 minutes working weights to keep his upper body tuned. "And I don't object to an early-morning walk with my wife once in a while in the neighborhood," he says. He credits the institute's prescription for a regimented exercise routine for helping to keep him in good shape.

Another participant, Don McNelly, 89, Rochester, N.Y. says he has run 744 marathons during his life—though he now "walks" them. He currently walks three to five miles a day at a shopping mall and awaits the arrival of spring in upstate New York when he can return to the local high-school track for his routine.

But such heroics aren't necessary to get fit. In fact, studies suggest the biggest benefit from exercise occurs when people go from a sedentary lifestyle to getting regular moderate exercise. "The biggest bang for your buck is just getting off the couch," Dr. Berry says.

Activities that qualify as moderate intensity exercise include walking at a brisk pace, mowing the lawn with a power mower, ballroom dancing and doubles tennis, according to the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine. Vigorous exercise options include walking or jogging at 4.5 miles per hour or faster, playing basketball and cross-country skiing.

Write to Ron Winslow at