Arnold School study finds fitness trumps body weight in reducing death risks; report gets widespread media attention

December 6, 2011

You've heard it before, but there's even more compelling evidence to indicate that living longer can be linked to maintaining or improving your fitness levels – even if your weight stays the same or increases.

The findings are from a study, led by Drs. Duck-chul Lee and Steven N. Blair of the Arnold School of Public Health and published in the Dec. 5 issue of "Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

"This is good news for people who are physically active but can't seem to lose weight," said Lee, a physical activity epidemiologist in the Arnold School's Department of Exercise Science. "You may worry less about your weight as long as you continue to maintain or increase your fitness levels."

In the study of 14,345 adult men, mostly white and middle or upper class, the researchers found that:

  • Maintaining or improving fitness was associated with a lower death risk even after controlling for Body Mass Index (BMI) change.
  • Every unit of increased fitness (measured as MET, metabolic equivalent of task) over six years was associated with a 19 percent lower risk of heart disease and stroke-related deaths and a 15 percent lower risk of death from any cause.
  • Becoming less fit was linked to higher death risk, regardless of BMI changes.

A change of BMI, a measurement based on weight and height, was not associated with death risk after controlling for possible confounders and fitness change. MET measures the intensity of aerobic exercise – specifically, the ratio of metabolic rate during a specific physical activity to a reference rate of metabolic rate at rest. A BMI score under 25 is considered normal weight, 25 to less than 30 is overweight, and 30 or greater is obese.

Results of the study underscore the importance of physical inactivity as a risk factor for death from heart disease and stroke, said Lee.

Researchers also found no association between changes in body fat percentage or body weight and death risk, he said.

Participants, who were an average 44 years old, were part of the long-term, large-scale Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study. They underwent at least two comprehensive medical exams. Researchers used maximal treadmill tests to estimate physical fitness (maximal METs), and height and weight measurements to calculate BMI. They recorded changes in BMI and physical fitness over six years.

After more than 11 years of follow-up, researchers determined the relative risks of dying among men who lost, maintained or gained fitness over six years. They accounted for other factors that can affect outcomes, including BMI change, age, family history of heart disease, beginning fitness level, changes in lifestyle factors such as smoking and physical activity, and medical conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

One possible explanation for these results, Lee said, is that about 90 percent of the men were either normal weight or overweight at the beginning of the study. Among obese people populations, changes in BMI might have a significant effect on death risks.

"So it's unclear whether these results would apply to severely obese people," Lee said.
"Also, because the study was mostly conducted among white middle- and upper-class men, it's difficult to know whether the results apply to other racial and socioeconomic groups. Women would likely have similar results as the men in the study."

The report has gained widespread media attention. Among the national media to interview Lee are CNN, CBS News Radio, WebMD, Time Magazine, The Huffington Post and Health Day.

The journal is available at

Other researchers from the Arnold School of Public Health were Dr. Xuemei Sui, Dr. Enrique G. Artero, and Dr. Steven N. Blair. This study was supported by the National Institutes of Health and by an unrestricted research grant from The Coca-Cola Company.

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