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Highway to Health

September 2000

How long will you live? The New Gauge

Hereís a trick question to ask your physician: "If you wanted to predict how long I will live and could measure just one thing, what would you measure?" (WARNING: youíll get different answers from different doctors, but Iím going to tell you the number I want to knowÖ and how you can measure without your doctor).

Wouldnít it be nice if we had a longevity test? One test you could do to tell how long you will live. Unfortunately, we havenít found one. Maybe itís better that we havenítóIím not sure I want to know when Iím scheduled to fly away. But wouldnít you find it useful to measure only one number and gauge your overall health? Iím going to uncover such a gauge--one you may not know.

First I'll tell you what your numbers should be...

If you're 20 to 39 years old, your number should be 36.75 or above or it's as risky as smoking cigarettes.  For 40 to 49, the number should be 34.65 or above.  For 50 to 59, the number should be 30.80 or above, for age 60 and above, the number should be 26.25 or above.  So what is this new number!?

Doctors measure several different numbers to predict your lifespan (cholesterol, weight, the age your parents died, triglycerides, how many packs of cigarettes you smoke per day, blood pressure, blood sugar, homocysteine, and your weight). All, useful measures; but, what if you could measure one number and tell how well your cardiovascular, pulmonary, and metabolism works from the nose to the mitochondria?

Such a number exists and a recent article (Vol. 282, No. 16) in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) described its ability as a prophet. Yet even if you know your cholesterol, your blood pressure and your homocysteine level, itís likely youíve never measured this number.

In this article in JAMA (where over twenty-five thousand men were studied), the authors found that your fitness level, measured by a number called "VO2 max," predicts your longevity more than does your cholesterol, blood pressure, and whether or not you have diabetes. VO2 max measures the maximum amount of oxygen your body can pull into your lungs, carry through your blood vessels, and burn in the mitochondria of your muscles. The people in this study were more likely to die if they had a low fitness level (a low VO2 max) than they were if they smoked cigarettes!  (Be sure and check the chart above for the number that you should try to achieve...for example if you are 52 years old and have a VO2 of 28, your poor fitness level is as risky as smoking)

Studies show that most people overestimate their level of fitness (most men secretly think they could fight like Bruce Lee if cornered by hoods). But, if your doctor wants to measure your fitness level, sheís got one problem: she canít measure it with a blood test.

You can estimate your fitness level and your VO2 max by walking on a track, timing your walk, and then making a few calculations. You can find details about how to do these calculations at another page on this site. At the runels Center, we can measure your VO2 max directly by analyzing your breath while you walk on a treadmill. This breath-by-breath analysis offers the most accurate measure (they used this method in the study in JAMA).

Elite athletes started using the VO2 max years ago to design workouts to obtain world- class speed with the least chance of injury in the shortest training time possible. 

I would like to see every reasonably healthy person try just as hard to keep a normal VO2 max as they do to keep their cholesterol normal.  The next time you strap on your running shoes, if someone asks where you're going... just say I'm going to raise my VO2max. 

Charles runels MD                        

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