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Stair test may predict your risk of dying of heart disease, cancer, study finds

If you can do this simple test, it's a good sign of your exercise capacity. If not, you may need to exercise more.
/ Source: TODAY

For a glimpse into the state of your health and longevity, just head for some stairs.

How people perform on an exercise test that requires them to move very briskly can predict their risk of premature death from heart disease, cancer and other causes, a study presented Thursday at a meeting of the European Society of Cardiology found.

Those with good exercise capacity — capable of high levels of physical exertion, say, on a treadmill — had less chance of dying early of any cause.

The participants in the study underwent an exercise echocardiogram, but there’s a much easier method to check your exercise capacity in a similar way: See if you can climb four flights of stairs at a fast pace — in under a minute — without having to stop, said Dr. Jesús Peteiro, the study author and a cardiologist at University Hospital A Coruña in A Coruña, Spain.

If you can do it, you have good functional capacity. If not, it’s a sign you need more exercise, he noted. Peteiro wasn’t surprised by his study’s findings.

“Physical activity has positive effect on blood pressure and lipids, reduces inflammation and improves the body`s immune response to tumors,” Peteiro told TODAY.

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For the study, 12,615 participants with known or suspected coronary artery disease underwent treadmill exercise echocardiography — a medical test to see how well a person’s heart tolerates activity.

What is a metabolic equivalent?

Their effort levels were measured in metabolic equivalents, or METs. One MET is equal to the energy it takes to sit quietly. Walking briskly requires about 3 METs, while jogging takes more than 6. This study defined good functional capacity as achieving a maximum workload of 10 METs.

Being able to climb four flights of stairs in about 45-55 seconds would be equivalent to 10 METs, Peteiro, estimated.

When the study participants were followed up over the next five years or so, each MET they achieved during the exercise test was associated with a 9 percent lower risk of cardiovascular death, a 9 percent lower risk of cancer death and 4 percent lower risk of other causes of death, the European Society of Cardiology noted.

In people with poor functional capacity, the death rate from heart disease was almost three times higher and cancer deaths were almost double compared to participants who had good exercise capacity.

Aim for 'breathlessness'

Cardiologists already know a patient who has a significantly abnormal heart stress test, but shows very good exercise capacity, has a better prognosis, said Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, and a member of the American College of Cardiology’s Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease Section Leadership Council.

Freeman was not involved in the new study, but said it would encourage him even more to push his patients to exercise regularly and vigorously.

He recommended 30 minutes a day of “breathlessness.”

“When people say, ‘I can’t exercise because I’m short of breath,’ I say, ‘Great, what a wonderful thing, I want you to use that your advantage,’” Freeman said. “I want you to warm up and get right to that point where you’re breathless — not passing out, but challenged. And I want you to stay there for as long as you can. Take a break when you need to and then resume.”

How much exercise do I need every day?

The latest exercise guidelines for Americans say adults need at least 2 ½ hours to five hours a week of moderate intensity exercise; or 1 hour, 15 minutes to 2 ½ hours of intense activity every week.

As for stairs offering clues to a person’s heart health, doctors already ask patients whether they can go up a flight of stairs without symptoms before clearing them for major surgery, Freeman noted. Other tests found to predict longevity include being able to get back up without support after sitting on the floor.

Try walking, running, bicycling and swimming to boost your exercise capacity, Peteiro advised. Freeman just wanted people to pick an activity they enjoyed that would make them breathless.

“We know that in some ways exercise is a medicine and it has a dose response, where typically more exercise is better,” he said.

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