December 2022

How regular exercise can increase your health span

6 min read

Maximum oxygen consumption, which is measured by VO2 max, and muscle mass can predict physical fitness and health levels in the later years of our lives. Higher physical fitness has been linked to reduced risk of chronic diseases. Read on to learn how you can measure your current physical fitness levels, what you can expect about your health span and 7 tips you can follow to maintain or improve it.

What is health span and why is it important?

Health span is a term used to refer to the length of time that a person lives in good health. It is often used in contrast to lifespan, which refers to the total length of time a person lives. Maximum oxygen consumption (VO2 Max) can be used as a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness and can be a good indicator of overall health and well-being. The ‘V’ stands for volume, ‘O2’ is the chemical formula for oxygen in its most stable state – the type of oxygen found in the air that we breathe and ‘Max’ stands for maximum, or maximal. This metric is expressed in litre/minute (L/min) or millilitres/minute per kilogram of body weight (mL/min/kg). It can be a reliable indicator of both total and cause-specific mortality, as cardiorespiratory fitness is an important predictor of health and longevity.

Although regular exercise training cannot yet add years to a person's genetically determined lifespan, it can make those years count for more. Improving cardiorespiratory fitness has been observed to be inversely related to the risk of chronic diseases. Higher VO2 Max values have also been associated with better cardiovascular health and a stronger heart and lungs. Muscle mass is another important factor in overall health and well-being, and can have a significant impact on health span. Having a higher amount of muscle mass can help protect against chronic diseases, improve physical function and mobility, and increase metabolism, which can help maintain a healthy weight.

There is some evidence to suggest that high levels of physical fitness may be associated with fertility in both men and women. In men, regular exercise has been shown to improve sperm quality and motility, which can increase the likelihood of successful conception. In women, regular exercise has been linked to better regulation of the menstrual cycle, which can also increase the likelihood of successful conception. Additionally, being physically fit can have a positive impact on mental health.

How you can find out what your fitness levels are

The maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 Max) can be measured in a number of ways, but the most accurate method is to undergo a graded exercise test (GXT) under the supervision of a trained professional. During a GXT, you will perform a series of exercises while wearing a mask that measures the amount of oxygen you inhale and the amount of carbon dioxide you exhale. This allows your VO2 Max to be calculated based on the amount of oxygen your body is using during exercise. Other, less accurate methods of estimating VO2 Max include using equations based on your age, gender, weight, and other factors, as well as using wearable devices such as fitness trackers and smart watches.

Muscle mass is best measured through a body composition analysis using dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) or other advanced imaging techniques. These methods can provide a detailed breakdown of body composition, including the amount of muscle mass, fat mass, and bone mass. Other methods of estimating muscle mass include using smart body scales, equations that use factors such as age, gender, weight, and height, as well as using handheld devices that use bioelectrical impedance to measure body composition. It's important to note that these methods are less accurate than DXA and may not provide a completely accurate measure of muscle mass. However, they may be able to show trends in your body composition.


How you can maintain or increase your health span

While lifespan is often used as a measure of overall health and well-being, health span, or the length of time during which we remain healthy, is actually a more important indicator of quality of life. Our lifespan can be affected by factors such as genetics and accidents, while our health span is largely determined by our lifestyle and behavioural factors, such as diet, exercise, and stress management. Therefore, focusing on improving our health span can have a greater impact on our overall well-being and quality of life than simply trying to extend lifespan. Additionally, increasing health span can also help reduce the burden on healthcare systems by reducing the incidence of chronic diseases and other health problems. It is important, however, to consult with your GP or clinician before starting any new exercise regime, especially if you are trying to conceive.

Here are seven ways to improve your health span:

  1. Engage in regular aerobic exercise: Activities like running, cycling, and swimming can help improve your VO2 max by increasing the efficiency of your heart and lungs.
  2. Incorporate high-intensity interval training (HIIT) into your routine: HIIT involves short bursts of intense activity followed by periods of rest, and has been shown to be particularly effective at improving VO2 max.  
  3. Engage in regular strength training: Lifting weights or using resistance bands can help increase muscle mass by causing the muscles to work harder and adapt.
  4. Vary your routine: It's important to include a mix of exercises that target different muscle groups in your routine to prevent plateaus and ensure that all of your muscles are being worked.
  5. Eat a healthy, balanced diet: A nutritious diet can provide your body with the fuel it needs to perform at its best during exercise, which can help improve your VO2 max and muscle mass.
  6. Get enough rest and recovery: Allowing your body time to rest and recover between workouts is important for optimal performance and can help improve your overall physical fitness and energy levels.
  7. Manage stress levels: One of the best ways to support your well-being, now and in the future, is to manage stress levels. Building a stress management toolkit can help you build resilience and recover more easily from any situation life throws your way.

A stress management toolkit can consist of different relaxation techniques and resources that you can use depending on the situation or season. Your capacity to re-establish equilibrium and recover from stress can have an impact on your mental health, disposition, and energy levels, which can impact your ability to engage in regular exercise. At Harper, we understand the value of a practical and flexible stress management toolkit that supports well-being and we are here to support you — backed by science. Our Plans can provide you with an actionable well-being routine while our Coaches are here to support, understand and be an accountability buddy for each step of your journey.

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