The short answer: yes. A recent study found that cardiovascular (aerobic) fitness reduces all-cause mortality in patients between the ages of 50 to 70. Its message is clear: cardio fitness matters. But how fit do we need to be to make a difference?
High aerobic fitness = greatest survival
The study ran from 1991 to 2014 and followed 122,000 people (59 percent male, 41 percent female) between the ages of 50 and 70. In it, they divided participants into five fitness performance groups based on a treadmill test. These were:
- Low fitness: below the 25th percentile.
- Below average fitness: 25th-49th percentile.
- Above average fitness: 50th-74th percentile.
- High fitness: 75th-97.6th percentile.
- Elite fitness: 97.7th percentile and higher (i.e. the top three per cent).
In this time, they observed 13,637 deaths and found that extremely high aerobic fitness had the greatest survival rate.
“When compared with the lowest performers, elite performance was associated with an 80 per cent reduction in mortality risk,” the report states.
While that’s good news for the elite fitness group, where does that leave Mr and Ms Middle-of-the-Road? Turns out, there’s some good news here too. As Professor Grant Schofield summarises in his review of the study’s results: “Just moving one category up in fitness halves your chances of dying of anything.”
Whether that’s moving from low to below average, above average to high or high to elite—the results are the same.
In a nutshell: any improvement in your cardiovascular fitness can increase your life expectancy, no matter how fit or unfit you are.
So how fit do we need to be?
To get into the top three per cent fitness category a 50-year-old male needs a VO2 Max* of 45 or higher. For a 50-year-old woman, it’s 36.1
Schofield puts it into perspective:
“If you were an 80 kilogram, 50-year-old male, you would need to run on a treadmill for a couple of minutes at 16 kilometres per hour,” he says. “For females, it’s slightly lower—20 per cent lower than men.”
We did the sums—it’s 12.8 kilometres per hour, ladies.
Obviously, it is not everyone’s goal to have elite age fitness. However, there’s a lot to be said for simply getting up and moving more.
*VO2 Max stands for maximum volume (V) of oxygen (O2 ). In other words, it’s the maximum amount of oxygen your circulatory system can transport around your body during exercise. It is an excellent indicator of aerobic fitness. The higher the number the more aerobically fit you are.
What does cardio fitness improve?
In addition to a longer life, cardiovascular fitness is also associated with a decreased risk of coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes, stroke and cancer2. Moreover, it helps control your blood pressure, cholesterol and weight and improves your energy and stamina3.
Cardio is good for brain health too, and has been linked to reducing the likelihood of dementia4.
How to improve your cardiovascular fitness
1. Increase your moving minutes.
The Ministry of Health recommends 2.5 hours (150 minutes) of moderate physical activity or 1.25 hours (75 minutes) of vigorous physical activity [read: cardio] per week. By vigorous, they mean not having enough breath left to hold a comfortable conversation.
However, another study has found that adults who exercise 60 minutes a day, five days a week, rather than the standard five by 30 minutes, had additional benefits, such as weight loss.
Important note! Being thin does not mean you are aerobically fit. Do not use this as a gauge of your fitness.
2. Start small and build.
As little as 15-minute bouts of aerobic exercise a few times a week can lead to aerobic fitness gains. As your fitness improves, you can extend the time to 30 minutes three times a week, or more. A slow build rather than diving right in will help you avoid injury.
3. Up the pace
If you’re already walking, make it brisk. If you’re running, play with your speed using intervals and fartlek training. Strength training: aim for dynamic moves that use multiple muscle groups. Cycling: if you’re outside, choose a route with a hill or two. If you’re inside, change up your cadence and gear/resistance.
Read more aerobic boosting tips here.
4. Add variety
High impact activities such as running and dance can lead to injuries and aching joints (particularly in your knees and ankles). Including low-impact workouts into your routine gives your body a break but still meets your weekly cardiovascular goals. Swimming, cycling, rowing and kayaking are all low-impact activities that can improve aerobic fitness.
The best type of cardio?
There’s no right or wrong answer. Walking, hiking, running, swimming, cycling, rowing, aerobics, stair climbing and some forms of dance are a few good examples. But, when it comes down to it, the best type of cardio exercise is the one you enjoy and will keep doing.
1. Very Well Fit, 2018.
2. JAMA Open Network, 2018.
3. University of Colorado Hospital, Training for Cardiovascular Fitness, 2003.
4. PreKure, Brain Awareness Week - Day 4 - EXERCISE, 2019.