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National Runners' Health Study: Vigorous Exercise Benefits Senior Americans

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By Jeffery Kahn,

November 11, 1996

BERKELEY, CA -- Through exercise, men who are 60 or older can significantly reduce their risk factors for heart disease, their number one killer. While moderate exercise helps, vigorous physical activity provides the most dramatic benefits.

These are the findings of a study of senior Americans by Dr. Paul Williams, a life scientist at Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). The study involved a national survey of 175 septuagenarians, 935 sexagenarians, and 8,672 younger male runners. The oldest was an 89-year-old who has run an average of 30 miles weekly over the last five years.

Williams presented his results Monday, November 11 at the 69th Scientific Sessions of the American Heart Association in New Orleans. The findings are part of the ongoing National Runners' Health Study.

As would be expected, older runners run slower than younger men. Notwithstanding that, those who ran more miles per week had more of the so-called "good" cholesterol (HDL), had lower blood pressure, and were less fat, reported Williams. Higher mileage seniors also had narrower waists, indicating lower abdominal fat. Medical experts believe that a smaller "spare tire" confers many benefits including less risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Williams said the study is good news for older men. Per mile run, their improvements in good cholesterol and blood pressure were equal to those recorded in younger runners, while their ability to shed inches from their waist may be even greater.

Whereas the Surgeon General's report on physical activity, released in July, emphasizes the benefits of moderate activity, this new study documents the benefits of vigorous activity in older men. Gardening, walking, and household cleaning are examples of moderate activity.

"Although incorporating moderate activity into one's life is clearly beneficial," said Williams, "our data show that older men may benefit substantially from greater amounts of more vigorous activity."

While higher mileage running reduced a number of risk factors, bad cholesterol (LDL) levels did not appear to be affected. Higher running mileage was associated with lower LDL (and lower risk) in younger men but not in older men. One possible explanation is that with age, metabolism rates change.

Dr. Ronald Krauss, senior scientist at Berkeley Lab, warns that older men should have their LDL-cholesterol levels checked and, when appropriate, treated. "Exercise is an important adjunct to diet and cholesterol-lowering drugs. However," said Krauss, "as men get older, even long distance runners should not assume that their LDL-cholesterol is within the desirable range." LDL-cholesterol levels below 130 mg/dl are desirable, according to the National Cholesterol Education Program.

As the National Runners' Health Study continues, Williams will recontact those who have participated in this particular project. Information will be requested on injuries, hospitalization, self-sufficiency, and cognitive abilities. Over time, direct evidence of the incidence of heart disease and cancer in higher mileage runners will be assembled.

Though time will tell, Williams makes a prediction. Based on the current data, he expects that sexagenarians and septuagenarians will have reduced heart disease risk in proportion to their vigorous activity. He also cautions, however, that previously inactive men over age 40, women over age 50, and people at high risk of heart disease should first consult a physician before embarking on a program of vigorous activity to which they are unaccustomed.

Berkeley Lab conducts unclassified scientific research for the U.S. Department of Energy. It is located in Berkeley, California and is managed by the University of California.

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