Fitness numbers and health – The HUNT3 Fitness Study

Physical fitness is very important for longevity and good health. The maximal oxygen uptake is the most precise measure of overall cardiovascular fitness. To investigate the distribution of maximal oxygen uptake across a healthy, adult population, we at the Cardiac Exercise Research Group tested more than 4,600 healthy Norwegians between 20 and 90 years of age.

The tests were performed between 2006 and 2008 as part of the third wave of the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study (HUNT3). We still base much of our research on data from the HUNT3 Fitness Study. From the same material we also made our popular Fitness Calculator, a non-exercise algorithm that estimates fitness accurately and preditcts future health.

Average fitness numbers

The mean maximal oxygen uptake in women and men participating in the HUNT3 Fitness Study were 35 and 44 mL/kg/min, respectively. The results suggest a ~7% decline in maximal oxygen uptake with every 10 year age increase in both genders.

Mean maximal oxygen uptake across the age-groups

Age Women Men
20–29 years 43 54
30–39 years 40 49
40–49 years 38 47
50–59 years 34 42
60–69 years 31 39
Over 70 years 27 34

Active elderly persons are as fit as inactive young persons

  Age Inactive Active
Men 20–29 years 47 60
  50–59 years 38 47
Women 20–29 years 37 49
  50–59 years 31 37

Higher fitness, lower disease risk

Women and men below the gender-specific mean were four to eight times more likely to have a cluster of at least three cardiovascular risk factors – called the metabolic syndrome – compared to the most fit quartile of subjects. We also observed that maximal oxygen uptake may represent a continuum from health to disease, and that a general 5 mL/kg/min lower maximal oxygen uptake was associated with ~56% higher odds of having the metabolic syndrome.

Read the full research article in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise:
Peak oxygen uptake and cardiovascular risk factors in 4631 healthy women and men

Moreover, high cardirespiratory fitness reveals the risk of heart attack in healthy persons. We found a strong link between higher fitness and reduced risk of a coronary event during the nine years following the HUNT3 Fitness Study. Only 147 participants had a heart attack or were diagnosed with angina pectoris during follow-up. The 25 % who measured the highest fitness levels had half the risk compared to those with the lowest fitness levels.

Read the full research article in European Heart Journal:
Peak oxygen uptake and incident coronary heart disease in a healthy population – The HUNT Fitness Study

We have also related higher cardiorespiratory fitness to better lung function. We studied the association between forced expiratory lung volume in one second (FEV1) and maximum oxygen uptake in 741 HUNT3 Fitness Study participants aged 20 to 79 years, and found a linear relationship between better lung function and higher fitness in men, women, young, elderly and non-smokers.

Read the full research article in BMC Pulmonary Medicine:
The association between dynamic lung volume and peak oxygen uptake in a healthy general population: the HUNT study

Furthermore, we found that the lower cardiorespiratory fitness, the higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in blood. CRP levels indicate general inflammation, and high CRP is considered a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The results might indicate that poor fitness contributes to increased inflammation, and that exercise to improve aerobic capacity could affect CRP levels positively. 1400 women and men from the HUNT3 Fitness Study was included in this study. 

Read the full research article in Mayo Clinic Proceedings:
Inflammation Is Strongly Associated With Cardiorespiratory Fitness, Sex, BMI, and the Metabolic Syndrome in a Self-reported Healthy Population: HUNT3 Fitness Study

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NTNU, Fakultet for medisin og helsevitenskap
Institutt for sirkulasjon og bildediagnostikk
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