If you need even more motivation to get fit — here it is.

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There’s already a mountain of evidence suggesting that having an active lifestyle and staying fit is good for you — but a new study sheds even more light on how good for you it is. Even if you are not overweight, you still stand to gain a lot from being (or staying) fit.

“We found a strong link between higher fitness levels and a lower risk of heart attack and angina pectoris over the nine years following the measurements that were taken,” says researcher Bjarne Nes from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Cardiac Exercise Research Group (CERG).

“Even among people who seem to be healthy, the top 25% of the fittest individuals actually have only half as high a risk as the least fit 25%,” Nes says.

Nes and colleagues measured the fitness of 4527 men and women who participated in the HUNT3 population-based health survey in Norway. At the time of this test, none of the participants suffered from cardiovascular disease, cancer or high blood pressure. In fact, most were at a low risk of cardiovascular problems.

However, 147 of them experienced heart attacks or were diagnosed with angina pectoris by 2017.

The researchers looked for patterns to these heart attacks, such as age. They discovered that the best indicator turned out to be the fitness level. Even when adjusting for lifestyle and environmental factors, fitness level was still a main indicator of cardiovascular risk.

The fitness levels were measured using maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max) — the most accurate fitness measurement according to Nes. This test has participants doing physical activity like running on a treadmill or cycling on a stationary bike. The participants breathe through a mask which measures their oxygen intake. As the speed gets higher and higher, and the oxygen intake also increases as the body tries to cope with the effort. At some point, the effort becomes too much and the participant can’t keep up. The oxygen uptake at that exact moment is VO2 max, and it’s an excellent indicator of your fitness level.

So how fit should you be?

Generally speaking, the fitter you are, the healthier you are. Increasing cardiovascular fitness seems to offer continuous benefits throughout the entire life.

“There is apparently no upper limit for training when it comes to the beneficial effects for the heart,” writes British Professor Sanjay Sharma in a commentary accompanying the NTNU study.

Overall, researchers find that overall, cardiovascular risk was reduced by 15% for every MET — with 1 MET being the equivalent of 3.5 ml of oxygen per kilogram per minute, a measure of VO2max.

Journal Reference: Letnes, J. M., et al. (2018): Peak oxygen uptake and incident coronary heart disease in a healthy population – The HUNT Fitness Study. European Heart Journal doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehy708

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