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Can a One Mile Run Predict How Long You'll Live?

Treadmill Running

Want to know how long you might live? There's now a rather simple way to find out. Jump on a treadmill and time how long it takes you to run a mile.

Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and the Cooper Institute in Dallas compared the fitness levels of more than 66,000 people over 36 years. In two separate studies, they found that how fit someone was at midlife was a more reliable predictor of long-term heart health than traditional methods of measuring cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

In fact, the differences were dramatic. A 45-year-old person in good shape (or what researchers call "high fitness") has a 3.4% lifetime risk of heart attack or stroke. 45-year-olds in the "low fitness" category have a 13.7% lifetime risk. The numbers get much worse as you age.

55 year-olds in the high fitness category have a 15.3% lifetime risk versus 34.2% for the low fitness. And for those of you who are 65, the high fitness people have a 17.1% risk compared with the 35.6% risk for those who are low fitness.

The studies tested people by the Balke protocol using treadmills to calculate their cardiovascular endurance and muscle fatigue. Subjects were grouped into low, moderate and high fitness categories. Based on those numbers, researchers came up with average mile times. Now you can figure out what your long-term cardiovascular risk is by simply using a stopwatch on your next run. Here's how to do it.

(Let me insert a sincere word of caution here. If you don't exercise regularly, if you drive a car to travel three blocks, if you avoid stairs at all costs or if the last time you saw the inside of a gym was in grade school, you should NOT jump on a treadmill and run all-out to figure out your cardiovascular risk. In fact, doing that might CAUSE a cardiovascular event. Visit your doctor or health care provider and get clearance before you start.)

High Fitness

A man in his 50s must be able to run a mile in 8 minutes or less to be in the high fitness category.

A woman in her 50s needs to complete that same mile in 9 minutes or less.

Moderate Fitness

If it takes a man between 8 and 9 minutes or a woman 9 and 10:30 minutes, their fitness level is considered moderate.

Low Fitness

Men who take more than 10 minutes or women who take more than 12 minutes are grouped in the low fitness category.

The category you're in is important. Over time, those who were considered high fitness have a lifetime risk of approximately 11.9%, compared to a 27.8% risk for people in the low fitness group. Think about that for a minute. You're nearly three times as likely to die of a heart attack or stroke based on how many minutes it takes you to run a mile.

Timing yourself is one way to see what kind of shape you're really in. Just because you're "active," doesn't mean you're pushing yourself hard enough. I've talked to hundreds of people who claim they walk three times a week but never move fast or vigorously enough to break a sweat. If you're not pushing yourself and sweating, you're probably not exercising hard enough.

There's one more thing to consider. If you've got physical limitations that prevent you from running fast (or running at all), that doesn't mean you're going to die of a heart attack. It just means you need to concentrate on alternate ways to improve your cardio fitness. Use machines that have upper body pedals like recumbent bikes, look into swimming or try shadowboxing. Do something that keeps your body moving at a relatively vigorous pace, for 30 minutes, a minimum of three times a week.

Exercise takes effort. By timing your run, you can see in black and white if you're doing enough to avoid long-term problems.

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