Cumulative overall mortality up to 13.8 years of follow-up in men according to quartiles (Qs) of maximal oxygen uptake (Q4 indicates <27.6 mL/kg per minute; Q3, 27.6-32.2 mL/kg per minute; Q2, 32.3-37.1 mL/kg per minute; and Q1, >37.1 mL/kg per minute).
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Laukkanen JA, Lakka TA, Rauramaa R, et al. Cardiovascular Fitness as a Predictor of Mortality in Men. Arch Intern Med. 2001;161(6):825–831. doi:10.1001/archinte.161.6.825
To examine the relations of cardiorespiratory fitness, as measured by maximal oxygen uptake and exercise test duration at the initiation of the study, with overall, cardiovascular disease (CVD)–related, and non–CVD-related mortality.
A population-based cohort study of 1294 men with no CVD, pulmonary disease, or cancer at baseline in Kuopio and surrounding communities in eastern Finland. During an average follow-up of 10.7 years, there were 124 overall, 42 CVD-related, and 82 non–CVD-related deaths.
The relative risk of overall death in unfit men (maximal oxygen uptake <27.6 mL/kg per minute) was 2.76 (95% confidence interval, 1.43-5.33) (P = .002), and the relative risk of CVD-related death was 3.09 (95% confidence interval, 1.10-9.56) (P = .05), compared with fit men (maximal oxygen uptake >37.1 mL/kg per minute) after adjusting for age, examination years, smoking, and alcohol consumption. The relative risk of non–CVD-related death in unfit men was almost the same magnitude as for overall death. Furthermore, adjustment for serum lipid levels, blood pressure, plasma fibrinogen level, diabetes, and fasting serum insulin level did not weaken these associations significantly. Exercise test duration also had a strong inverse relation to overall, CVD-related, and non–CVD-related mortality. Poor cardiorespiratory fitness was comparable with elevated systolic blood pressure, smoking, obesity, and diabetes in importance as a risk factor for mortality.
Cardiorespiratory fitness had a strong, graded, inverse association with overall, CVD-related, and non–CVD-related mortality. Maximal oxygen uptake and exercise test duration represent the strongest predictors of mortality.
PHYSICAL INACTIVITY, as measured objectively by low cardiorespiratory fitness, has been estimated to account for 12% of all deaths in the United States.1 Thus, it is considered to be one of the most crucial public health problems. Low cardiorespiratory fitness2-9 has consistently been associated with an increased risk of premature death in prospective population-based studies. This has been mainly due to reduced cardiovascular disease (CVD)–related mortality,2,4,5 but also to some extent to reduced cancer-related mortality,4 in fit individuals. Indeed, low cardiorespiratory fitness has been found to be as strong a predictor of mortality as the conventional modifiable risk factors, such as cigarette smoking, hypercholesterolemia, and hypertension.7,9
Recommendations concerning the specific quantity and intensity of physical activity and the level of cardiorespiratory fitness needed to reduce premature mortality are based on a few prospective population-based studies.10,11 Maximal oxygen uptake (V. O2max), as a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness, provides a quantifiable measurement of the level of physical exercise in addition to its genetic component. Directly measured V. O2max is a gold standard for assessing the amount of oxygen consumption in maximal effort.12 Maximal oxygen uptake during exercise represents cardiac, circulatory, and respiratory function and muscle oxygen use under physiological stress conditions.
The present study examines the associations of cardiorespiratory fitness, as indicated by directly measured V. O2max,13 and exercise test duration with mortality not only from CVDs but also from other causes, in a population-based sample of men from eastern Finland.
Subjects were participants in the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study.14 This study was designed to investigate risk factors for CVD, atherosclerosis, and related outcomes in a population-based, randomly selected sample of men in eastern Finland.14 Of the 3433 men aged 42, 48, 54, or 60 years who resided in the town of Kuopio or its surrounding rural communities, 198 were excluded because of death, serious disease, or migration away from area, and of the remaining men, 2682 (83%) agreed to participate in the study. Baseline examinations were conducted between March 20, 1984, and December 5, 1989.
Men who had a history of CVD, including coronary heart disease diagnosed by angina pectoris, myocardial infarction, use of medications for coronary heart disease, and myocardial ischemia in an exercise test (n = 766); cardiac insufficiency (n = 194); claudication (n = 108); stroke (n = 69); cardiomyopathy (n = 55); arrhythmias (n = 26); other CVDs (n = 103); cancer (n = 46); or pulmonary diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (n = 197), pulmonary tuberculosis (n = 104), and asthma (n = 96) were excluded as these conditions might have affected their physical exercise and cardiorespiratory fitness. Some men had 2 or more of these diseases. Subjects (56 men with and 13 men without disease) whose V. O2max was less than 15.75 mL/kg per minute, corresponding to 4.5 metabolic equivalents (METs) (METs of oxygen consumption), were also excluded, as a low V. O2max may be an indicator of an underlying but yet undiagnosed disease. An exercise capacity of 5 METs or less is related to poor prognosis in subjects younger than 65 years.12 After these exclusions, complete data on V. O2max and exercise test duration were available for 1294 of the remaining men.
Cardiorespiratory fitness was assessed with a maximal, symptom-limited exercise tolerance test on an electrically braked bicycle ergometer at the initiation of the study. For 307 men examined before May 8, 1986, the testing protocol comprised a 3-minute warm-up at 50 W followed by a step-by-step increase in the workload of 20 W/min. The remaining 987 men were tested with a linear increase in the workload of 20 W/min. The electrocardiogram was registered continuously during the exercise stress test.
Maximal oxygen uptake and exercise test duration were used as measures of cardiorespiratory fitness. A detailed description of the measurement of V. O2max has been given elsewhere.13 In short, respiratory gas exchange was measured for the first 307 men by the mixing-chamber method, and for the other 987 men by a breath-by-breath method. Maximal oxygen uptake was defined as the highest value for or the plateau of oxygen uptake. Maximal oxygen uptake was also expressed in METs. The MET is the ratio of the metabolic rate during exercise to the metabolic rate at rest. One MET corresponds to an oxygen uptake of 3.5 mL/kg per minute.
The most common reasons for stopping the exercise test were leg fatigue (n = 735); exhaustion (n = 207); breathlessness (n = 155); and pain in the leg muscles, joints, or back (n = 50). The test was discontinued because of cardiorespiratory symptoms or abnormalities in 86 men. These included arrhythmias (n = 36), a marked change in systolic (n = 8) or diastolic (n = 24) blood pressure, dizziness (n = 7), chest pain (n = 7), or ischemic electrocardiographic changes (n = 4).
Assessments of smoking, alcohol consumption, physical activity, and blood pressure13,15,16 were performed as described previously. The collection of blood specimens15 and the measurement of serum lipids and lipoproteins,17,18 insulin,18 plasma fibrinogen,19 and glucose15 have been described elsewhere. Body mass index was computed as weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters, and waist-hip ratio as the ratio of the circumference of the waist to that of the hip.
Deaths were ascertained by linkage to the national death registry using the Finnish social security number. There were no losses to follow-up. All deaths that occurred between study enrollment (from March 20,1984, to December 5, 1989) and December 31, 1997, were included. Deaths that were coded with the International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision (ICD-9),20 codes 390 to 459 were included in the analyses of CVD-related deaths. All other deaths were non–CVD-related deaths. The average time to any death or the end of follow-up was 10.7 years (range, 0.8-13.8 years). In the present sample, there were 124 deaths during the follow-up period, 42 from CVD-related causes and 82 from non–CVD-related causes.
The associations of V. O2max and exercise test duration with the risk factors for death were examined using covariate analysis. The levels of V. O2max and exercise test duration were entered as dummy variables into forced Cox proportional hazards regression models using Statistical Package for the Social Science software (SPSS Inc, Chicago, Ill).21 In these models, V. O2max and exercise test duration were categorized according to quartiles. If possible, covariates were entered uncategorized into the Cox proportional hazards regression models. Three different sets of covariates were used: (1) age and examination years (1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1989); (2) age, examination years, cigarette smoking, and alcohol consumption; and (3) in the case of overall and CVD-related mortality, age, examination years, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, systolic blood pressure, diabetes, fasting serum insulin level, plasma fibrinogen level, serum high- and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, and triglycerides level. Relative hazards, adjusted for risk factors, were estimated as antilogarithms of coefficients from multivariate models. Their confidence intervals (CIs) were estimated under the assumption of asymptotic normality of the estimates. All tests for statistical significance were 2-sided. The fit of the proportional hazards regression models was examined by plotting the hazard functions in different categories of risk factors over time. The results indicated that the application of the models was appropriate. All statistical analyses were performed using Statistical Package for the Social Science software for Windows. To reduce the possibility of self-selection bias, these data were reanalyzed by excluding men who had died during the first 3 years of follow-up.
At the beginning of the follow-up, the mean age of the subjects was 52.1 years (range, 42.0-61.3 years). The mean V. O2max was 32.7 mL/kg per minute (range, 16.0-65.4 mL/kg per minute), and the mean exercise test duration was 9.7 minutes (range, 2.9-19.9 minutes). Maximal oxygen uptake was associated directly with serum high-density lipoprotein cholesterol level and exercise test duration and inversely with cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, body mass index, waist-hip ratio, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, diabetes, fasting serum insulin level, plasma fibrinogen level, serum total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol level, and triglycerides level (Table 1).
Low cardiorespiratory fitness was related to increased risk of overall mortality (Table 2). Low V. O2max (<27.6 mL/kg per minute) was associated with a 2.76-fold (95% CI, 1.43-5.33) (P = .002) risk of overall mortality after adjusting for age, examination years, smoking, and alcohol consumption (P<.001 for linear trend). Also, a short exercise test duration was associated with an increased risk of overall mortality (Table 2). The relative risk (RR) of overall death was 2.72 (95% CI, 1.37-5.42) (P = .004) in men whose exercise test duration was less than 8.2 minutes (lowest quartile) compared with men whose exercise test duration was more than 11.2 minutes (highest quartile) after adjusting for age, examination years, smoking, and alcohol consumption (P = .007 for linear trend). Additional adjustment for serum triglycerides level, high- and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, systolic blood pressure, diabetes, fasting serum insulin level, and plasma fibrinogen level did not change the associations of V. O2max and exercise test duration with overall mortality significantly.
Low cardiorespiratory fitness was associated with an increased risk of CVD-related mortality (Table 2). Men with a low V. O2max (<27.6 mL/kg per minute) had a 3.09-fold (95% CI, 1.10-9.56) (P = .05) risk of CVD-related death after adjusting for age, examination years, smoking, and alcohol consumption compared with men with a high V. O2max (>37.1 mL/kg per minute) (P = .01 for linear trend). Further adjustment for serum triglycerides level, serum low- and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, systolic blood pressure, diabetes, fasting serum insulin level, and plasma fibrinogen level slightly weakened these associations (P = .05 for linear trend). There was little difference in the risk between the first and second quartiles (Table 2).
Exercise test duration was related to an increased risk of CVD-related mortality (Table 2). The RR of CVD-related death was 3.44 (95% CI, 1.09-10.80) (P= .04) in the lowest quartile compared with men in the highest quartile after adjustment for age, examination years, smoking, and alcohol consumption (P = .01 for linear trend).
Low cardiorespiratory fitness (V. O2max of <27.6 mL/kg per minute or an exercise duration of <10.2 minutes) was also associated with an increased risk of non–CVD-related death (Table 2). The RR of non–CVD-related death in men with a low V. O2max was 2.60 (95% CI, 1.16-5.83) (P = .02) after adjustment for age, examination years, smoking, and alcohol consumption (P = .005 for linear trend). Men whose exercise test duration was less than 10.2 minutes (lowest quartile) had an increased risk of non–CVD-related death (RR, 2.46; 95% CI, 1.01-5.70; P = .05) compared with men with durations that were longer than 13.2 minutes (highest quartile) after adjustment for age, examination years, smoking, and alcohol consumption.
The associations of other risk factors with overall and CVD-related mortality are presented in Table 3. High systolic blood pressure, smoking, obesity, and diabetes were associated with an increased risk of all-cause and CVD-related mortality. Men with the highest systolic blood pressure (>143 mm Hg) had a 2.32-fold risk and men with the highest waist-hip ratio (>0.98) had a 1.54-fold risk of overall death (Table 3). The RR of CVD-related death was 3.18 in hypertensive men (those with a systolic blood pressure of >143 mm Hg) and 3.74 in obese men (those with a waist-hip ratio of >0.98). Smokers had a 3.74-fold and diabetic men had a 2.38-fold risk of overall mortality, whereas the RR of CVD-related death was 2.57 in smokers and 4.09 in diabetic men (Table 3). Unfit men had RRs of 3.85 for overall and 3.97 for CVD-related death, which are at least as strong as the other risk factors presented in Table 3.
In the present study, in middle-aged men, V. O2max and exercise test duration had a strong, graded, and inverse association with overall, CVD-related, and non–CVD-related mortality. In fact, V. O2max and exercise test duration were 2 of the strongest predictors for mortality in the present unselected Finnish cohort. These findings support US cohort studies7,9 suggesting that the risk of death associated with low cardiorespiratory fitness is comparable with that of conventional risk factors, including smoking, hypertension, obesity, and diabetes.
Blair and coworkers4,7 found that moderate levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, defined by quintiles of treadmill test time, were associated with reduced all-cause and CVD-related mortality, while higher levels provided only little further reduction in the risk of death. Sandvik and coworkers5 observed that moderate levels (quartiles) of work capacity in the bicycle ergometer test were associated with reduced CVD-related mortality, but there was some further reduction in the risk at the highest levels. However, Ekelund and coworkers2 showed a marked difference in CVD-related mortality between high and low levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, assessed by heart rate at a speed of 4 km/h (2.5 miles/h) on a treadmill. In our study, V. O2max had a strong, graded, and inverse association with overall, CVD-related, and non–CVD-related mortality through its whole range. The mortality curves for the quartiles of V. O2max continued to diverge during follow-up (Figure 1). The greatest excess of mortality was found at the lowest level of V. O2max (<27.6 mL/kg per minute or 7.9 METs).
The expert panel suggested that every US adult should accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week to promote health and to prevent chronic diseases.10 In a recent randomized trial,22 researchers estimated that an increase of 10% in cardiorespiratory fitness, corresponding to a 1-MET increase in exercise capacity, can be achieved by maintaining these exercise recommendations for 2 years. However, more intense structured exercise could increase physical fitness by 1 MET in 6 months.22 Blair and coworkers6 reported that an increase of 2 METs in treadmill performance was related to a reduction of 30% in mortality. Previous studies6,8 have suggested that even a small improvement in cardiorespiratory fitness can result in reduced all-cause and CVD-related mortality.
Some studies23-27 have suggested that physical exercise reduces the risk of prostate, breast, and large-bowel cancer, but the evidence is inconclusive for other cancers. However, little is known about the relation between cardiorespiratory fitness and cancer risk. In a few previous studies, cardiorespiratory fitness has been related inversely to mortality from cancer of combined sites4,23 and of the prostate.24 In our study, cardiorespiratory fitness had a strong, graded, and inverse association with non–CVD-related mortality, primarily due to cancers and pulmonary diseases. It has been suggested that physical activity and good cardiorespiratory fitness could reduce the risk of cancer through their beneficial effects on energy balance, the digestive system (decreased intestinal transit time), hormonal concentrations (a reduced testosterone level), changes in prostaglandin levels, antioxidant enzyme activities, or body mass.23-25 However, these mechanisms are largely speculative, whereas physiological and metabolic mechanisms underlying the association of cardiorespiratory fitness with CVD-related mortality are understood better.10,11
Maximal oxygen uptake, which is a product of cardiac output and maximal arteriovenous oxygen difference, is determined by age; sex; the duration, intensity, frequency, and type of physical activity; genetic factors; and clinical or subclinical disease.2,4,7,28 The genetic component of cardiorespiratory fitness is estimated to be 25% to 40%.28 It is proposed that low cardiorespiratory fitness reflects mainly physical inactivity. High-intensity exercise is more effective than low-intensity exercise for improving V. O2max in healthy persons, but lower-intensity physical activity may be sufficient to improve V. O2max in high-risk persons.29 Therefore, the level of physical activity sufficient to improve cardiorespiratory fitness probably depends on the initial health and fitness status, the length of the previous training history, and the duration, frequency, and intensity of the exercise. Maximal oxygen uptake usually decreases by 5% to 15% per decade between the ages of 20 and 80 years, and the rate of decline in oxygen uptake is directly related to maintenance of physical activity level, emphasizing the importance of physical activity.12
The strength of our study is that we have a representative population-based sample of middle-aged men in Finland. Second, the participation rate was high, and there were no losses during follow-up. Third, we have reliable data on mortality because deaths were ascertained by the Finnish National Death Registry using social security number, supplemented with reliable data on health status and risk factors that permit the control of potential confounders. Our study also demonstrated that both of the measurements of cardiorespiratory fitness, V. O2max and exercise test duration, were strong predictors of mortality. The exercise test is readily available from any exercise laboratory, and the duration of the test can be measured without any additional equipment. The treadmill test2,4 and the bicycle dynamometer test5 are useful and reliable ways to define cardiorespiratory fitness status.
In this study, we used only a single measurement of V. O2max at baseline, but this is not a major limitation. Ideally, the measurement of cardiorespiratory fitness should be repeated to investigate the effect over time. However, it has been shown that the intraindividual variability of V. O2max is low.30 In fact, variation with time in cardiorespiratory fitness could underestimate the real association between V. O2max and mortality. It is impossible to know whether cardiorespiratory fitness decreased or increased during follow-up because of the probable changes in the exercise and other health habits of the subjects. We have no data on changes in cardiorespiratory fitness during follow-up, which could affect mortality, as reported previously.6,8
This prospective population study provides evidence that V. O2max is associated with an increased risk of death, although only a randomized controlled trial of thousands of subjects could prove a causal pathway between V. O2max and mortality. It is difficult to distinguish an increased risk of death due to a low level of cardiorespiratory fitness from an increased risk because of prevalent asymptomatic or preexisting CVD or cancer. Thus, it is possible that the strength of the association of cardiorespiratory fitness with mortality is exaggerated by such a bias. It is unclear how long a lag time would be required to avoid any such possible selection bias. However, the importance of the lag period diminishes with longer follow-up, because any bias will be diluted by the increasing weight of the unbiased cases. We excluded men who died during the first 3 years of follow-up, but the results did not change markedly because of the few deaths occurring in the first 3 years (Figure 1). Furthermore, the careful exclusion of individuals with prevalent coronary heart disease, stroke, cardiac insufficiency, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, claudication, cancer, and pulmonary diseases and of persons with a low V. O2max means that a self-selection bias is an unlikely source of bias in our study.
An increasing amount of epidemiologic data supports the measurement of cardiorespiratory fitness in clinical practice. Based on the results in our study, direct or indirect measurement of V. O2max, which is available in most clinics, can provide a good estimate for cardiorespiratory fitness level and prognosis. Poor cardiorespiratory fitness is an important and independent risk factor for premature death, and can be considered to be as important as smoking, hypertension, obesity, and diabetes.
Accepted for publication October 3, 2000.
This study was supported by grants from the Finnish Academy, Helsinki; the Ministry of Education of Finland; the city of Kuopio, Finland; the Yrjö Jahnsson Foundation, Helsinki (Drs Laukkanen and Lakka); and the Juho Vainio Foundation, Helsinki (Drs Laukkanen and Lakka), Finland.
We thank Esko Taskinen, MD, and Hannu Litmanen, MD, for supervising the exercise tests; Kari Seppänen, MSc, and Kristiina Nyyssönen, PhD, for supervising the laboratory measurements; and Sudhir Kurl, MD, and Kimmo Ronkainen, MPH, for data management and analyses.
Corresponding author and reprints: Jukka T. Salonen, MD, PhD, MSPH, Research Institute of Public Health, University of Kuopio, PO Box 1627, Harjulantie 1 B, 70211 Kuopio, Finland (e-mail: Jukka.Salonen@uku.fi).