Too much of a good thing can be definitely bad for us. But a new study published Friday in JAMA Network Open suggests that exercise is a clear exception. It found that any level of cardiovascular fitness—including the kind you’d see from elite athletes—is linked to staying alive longer.
That exercise is universally great for our health sounds like a no-brainer, sure. But in recent years, there’s actually been evidence that elite athletes and other heavy exercisers might paradoxically be at greater risk of some heart conditions than the average person, such as an irregular heartbeat, clogged arteries, and thickened heart valves. And these conditions might then raise an athlete’s risk of sudden cardiac death or other heart problems.
Based on this evidence, some researchers have theorized that the negative effects of exercise follow a U-curve, where too little and too much can damage the heart and shorten our lives. Much of this earlier research has relied on self-reported data, though, or only looked at short-term health outcomes, the authors behind the current study say.
So for their research, they decided to analyze long-term data from their own medical center, the Cleveland Clinic. They looked at more than 120,000 patients (their average age being 53) who had taken an exercise treadmill test at the clinic sometime between 1994 to 2014. The test results gave the researchers an objective measure of someone’s overall fitness. Then, using social security and medical records, they tracked if and when the patients died.
By the end of 2017, about 13,500 people had died. And across the board, the authors found, the more fit a person was, the less likely they were to be sent to an early grave. And while the life-saving effects of exercise did start to taper off, with elite athletes only being slightly more death-proof than merely highly active people, the researchers found there was “no observed upper limit of benefit.”
“These findings emphasize the importance of aerobic fitness in overall health,” the authors said.
Elite athletes did certainly seem to live longer than everyone else, on average. When compared to people with the lowest fitness, the authors estimated, elite fitness was associated with an 80 percent reduction in mortality risk. And the effects of elite exercise were especially profound in older people and those with high blood pressure. But that isn’t to say that exercise is only for people who are hoping to run a marathon.
Other research has found that any amount of regular exercise will help you out in the long run, not just in prolonging your life but improving the quality of those last days. And in the current study, even people with below average levels of fitness were much less likely to die than those with the worst fitness. Overall, the authors estimated that poor fitness raised the risk of dying by the same degree or greater as other major risk factors, like cardiovascular disease or smoking.
So yeah, the more exercise you can get, the better. But don’t get down on yourself for just doing as much power walking or stair climbing as you’re capable of.