Physical fitness lowered the risk of death in elderly men with high blood pressure, even in the moderately fit, according to new research released Monday.

A brisk walk of 20 to 40 minutes most days of the week is enough for most elderly people to achieve a moderate fitness level, said Charles Faselis, M.D., lead author of the study, chief of medical services at Washington D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Researchers assessed the fitness of 2,153 men aged 70 and older who had high blood pressure, using a standard exercise treadmill test. They determined the men’s peak fitness levels by measuring metabolic equivalents. A MET is the amount of oxygen the body uses per kilogram of body weight per minute. The men’s fitness levels were categorized as very low, low, moderate or high.

“To put this in perspective, the peak MET level of a sedentary 50-year-old is about five to six METs,” said Peter Kokkinos, Ph.D., senior author and professor at Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“For a moderately fit individual, it’s about seven to nine METS, and for a highly fit person, it’s 10 to 12 METs. Still, marathon runners, cyclists and other long distance athletes often have MET levels of 20 or higher,” said Kokkinos, also professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine and the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences

After an average follow-up on nine years, researchers found that for every one-MET increase in exercise capacity there was an 11 percent drop in the risk of death.

Compared to least-fit men, who had up to 4 peak METs:

  • Low-fit men, with 4.1 to 6 peak METs, had an 18 percent lower risk of death.
  • Moderately-fit men, with 6.1 to 8 peak METs, had a 36 percent lower risk of death.
  • High-fit men, with more than 8 peak METs, reduced their risk of death by 48 percent.

“For every 100 people who died in the least-fit category, 82 died in the low-fit, 64 in the moderate-fit and 52 in the high-fit categories,” Kokkinos said. “The death rate is cut in half for those in the highest fitness category.”

The study was published in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension.

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