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Death Risk Doubles for Women Under 85% Average Fitness for Age

Aug. 3, 2005 -- A new tool tells women and men how fit they are -- and how that affects their risk of death.

The tool is a simple-looking chart. It lets you see how your personal fitness level matches up with the fitness of other people your age. You may be seeing it soon in your doctor's office -- and in your gym.

To use the chart, you have to know how much exercise you're able to do. This can be learned in a gym, using a treadmill or other device that gives readings in units called METs. It can also be done in a doctor's office equipped with a stress testing device. Seeing a doctor is a good idea for anyone not already exercising regularly.

Fitness charts have long been available for men. Before now, nobody had ever collected the data needed for a women's fitness chart. That's changed, thanks to the nearly 6,000 Chicago-area women who underwent exercise stress tests as part of the St. James Women Take Heart Project. Rush University researcher Martha Gulati, MD, led the team that analyzed the data.

Fitness Breeds Longer Life

"Having a good fitness level for one's age predicts better survival," Gulati tells WebMD. "If you are below the fitness level for your age, you are more likely to die."

Indeed, Gulati finds that women double their risk of death if they can't exercise at 85% of the level normal for their age.

Gulati's study appears in the Aug. 4 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. Accompanying the paper is an editorial co-authored by Duke University researcher Pamela S. Douglas, MD. Douglas is the president of the American College of Cardiology.

"We doctors usually look at electrocardiograms [EKGs] and other tests to see heart trouble -- but it turns out how long you can exercise is almost as important," Douglas tells WebMD. "If you are well, how long you can exercise is more important than any other variable in determining how long you live."

Exercise Prescriptions

The women Gulati and colleagues studied had no obvious symptoms of heart disease. But like many U.S. women, they weren't exactly healthy. The study measured fitness in terms of METs -- metabolic equivalents -- which provide a measurement of the amount of oxygen a person can breathe at a given workload.

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