Fitness could mean postponement of the inevitable, it looks like. Even a minimal level of fitness cuts the risk of premature death, according to a study published in the Journal of the American MedicalAssociation.
The long-term study tracked the exercise and death rates of a few thousand Americans beginning at age 60. The new findings break those older Americans down into five groups, from the most fit to the least. Researchers documented 32 deaths per 1,000 people over the course of a year in the least fit group. This compares with 16 deaths in the group that was just slightly more fit, and eight deaths in the most-fit category.
"So you can cut your risk of dying in half by just getting out of that low-fit category," says researcher Steven Blair of the University of South Carolina.
The individuals in the most-fit category had the lowest risk of death. So, researchers say, the more exercise the better.
Thirty minutes of moderate exercise five days per week is what's needed to achieve the minimal fitness. Moderate exercise entails walking at a 2-3 mph pace. Blair says 100 minutes a week of aerobic-style class is equivalent.
"I think a lot of people are happy to hear it," says Blair. They're often surprised they don't have to do heavy-duty training.
The men and women in Blair's study may be a little more fit than older Americans in general. But among the group there were a fair number of overweight and obese participants, including individuals with a body-mass index, or BMI, of 35 and above.
"There's a sizable number, nearly half, who are fit and proved it on the treadmill test." says Blair. "So you can't tell by looking at someone whether they're physically fit."
Lots of research has shown that obesity alone is a risk factor for many diseases. This new research suggests that if overweight and obese people are fit, they lower their risk of premature death.
In most cases, the death rates for those with higher fitness levels were less than half of the rates for those who were unfit but weighed similar amounts.
Blair says people who are sedentary can get themselves out of "the hazardous low-fit category" by doing 30 minutes of moderate activity, such as walking, at least five days a week.
To be in the highest fitness category, they probably need to be doing 45 minutes or more of moderate activity five days, and some of that time should include vigorous activity, he says.
Timothy Church, director of preventive medicine research at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, says, "this study provides more evidence that a key to healthy aging is being physically active, and it's important at any weight."
In the case of those in the eighties, even a video game like Nintendo Wii could be some exercise, any day better than silent brooding.
Esther McGuire, 84, a resident of Riderwood, a senior living community in Silver Spring, Maryland, says she's not surprised to hear that exercise and longevity are linked.
As she swings her arm and bends her knees in a game of bowling on the Nintendo Wii, she lets out a whoop in anticipation of a strike.
"It feels good," says McGuire, who's now helping organize Wii tournaments. "It keeps us moving instead of watching television."
McGuire also works out three times a week at the gym, so experts say she's almost certain to escape being categorized as one of the least fit in her age group.
"It's only really the least fit 20 percent of an age group that seem to have much higher mortality rates," says researcher Glenn Gaesser of the University of Virginia.
Walter Fowler, 81, is one of Riderwood's Wii enthusiasts. He says he's drawn in by the camaraderie.
"I don't get to the gym, of course, as often as I should," says Fowler, but he walks everyday and wouldn't miss the game tournaments.
It's not clear how much physical activity the video games provide, compared to say walking on treadmill. But, experts say, if people choose games over exercise equipment, it's important to take note.
"We can tell you what you should do," says I-Min Lee, M.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health. "But if you don't like it, you're not going to do it."
So, if you want to be more active than your sedentary peers, start with something you like is the advice.