Be smart about your health — consult the experts

By PATTY HAMMOND

Cornell University Cooperative Extension

There is a lot of information out there to sort through regarding health and fitness. What is fact and what is fiction? After doing some research, here’s what the experts have to say regarding longevity, inactivity and those promises of “instant results.”

TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE

Advertisements for fitness products claiming they will do everything from make you perform better to recover more quickly are everywhere you look. You’ll find promises on the product packaging, in store displays, at fitness centers, on TV, in magazines and newspapers. How do you know if these products will actually do what they promise?

Researchers at Oxford wondered about that, too. They tried to find evidence behind the claims of 104 different fitness products. Not only did they analyze the fitness product’s websites and magazine advertisements, they also wrote to the manufacturers seeking references to research that would support the claims the manufacturers were making about their products.

The researchers found more than half of the websites they studied didn’t provide any references. Even when sites did provide references, they didn’t always link to studies. In the end, they found only 76 studies. Of those, only three were judged as high quality studies. Be wary of claims that seem too good to be true – it’s likely that’s the case.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF INACTIVITY

You don’t need a fitness product to get up off your couch. Far too many of us are inactive, as evidenced by other recent studies examining physical activity levels of people all over the world. One study of 122 countries found more than 31 percent of adults older than 14 were inactive. It also found people get more inactive as they age, with women less likely to be active than men, and there’s more inactivity in higher income nations like ours.

With studies showing that physical inactivity is a contributing factor to the development of heart disease, diabetes, and cancers like breast and colon, we need to get moving. One study estimated that 9 percent of premature deaths worldwide are related to physical inactivity. So, we know we need to move more to delay death, but how much longer will we live if we become more active?

LIVING LONGER

A couple studies conducted recently, and published in the British Medical Journal, have helped us learn more about the impact physical activity has on our longevity. The studies examined the long term health of Olympic athletes.

One study examined more than 15,000 Olympic medalists from nine countries. They looked at athletes from back when the modern Olympics began in 1896, comparing those athletes to similar groups of people in the general population. They simply wanted to see if the athletes lived longer than the rest of us.

They found medalists lived an average of 2.8 years longer than similar people in the general population, but the sport they medaled in made a difference. Olympians who competed in endurance sports like running, cycling and rowing or in technique-based sports like golf, table tennis and croquet had the longest lifespans. Thirty years after their Olympics, around 13 percent more of them were alive than were members of their comparison group. However, Olympians competing in power sports like weight-lifting and discus had shorter lifespans. They lived longer than the rest of us, but with only by 5 percent.

Another study of athletes looked at almost 10,000 Olympians, medalists and participants comparing their lifespans based on the level of their sport’s cardiovascular intensity. The researchers found no difference in lifespan between the athletes, whether they engaged in more strenuous sports or less strenuous ones, with one notable exception. Not too surprisingly, they found contact sports and sports where frequent crashes were not unusual, like bobsledding, boxing or rugby, shortened lifespans.

What does all of this mean for you? It appears cardiovascular exercise is more beneficial than power exercises like weight-lifting, although strength training is still important. These studies also seem to indicate that the intensity of cardiovascular exercise doesn’t matter; meaning walking is as likely to extend your lifespan as much as running will. Finally, you’d be wise to avoid sports featuring heavy contact or crashes if you want to live a longer, healthier life, but don’t use that as an excuse to sit on your couch. It’s important to get up and get moving, no matter how old you are. Just don’t waste a lot of your money on unnecessary fitness products.

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