Reality check: Is the treadmill test a good measure of your risk of death?

Thousands of people join health clubs in the first week of the new year as part of their New Year resolution. But they will drop like flies in no time. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

TORONTO – For those who dread cardio, the findings were frightening: a new study warned that how you fare on the treadmill could be an indicator of your risk of death in the next decade.

American cardiologists out of John Hopkins University developed an algorithm – dubbed the FIT Treadmill Score – to help determine your health outcomes over the next decade. That included if a visit from the Grim Reaper was in your cards.

Then came the headlines: “Run for your life,” “Treadmill test predicts how long you’ll live,” and Global News’ own, “How long can you last on the treadmill? Study ties performance to risk of death.”

Simply put, the coverage about the new study and the treadmill test suggest that your results on a treadmill test could be a telltale sign of if you’ll be alive a decade from now. How alarming is that?

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Global News looks at the study findings, the treadmill test and gets the verdict from a Canadian expert.

The study’s findings:

The U.S. scientists say that next to age and gender, your heart rate and how highly activated your metabolism is while running can be key predictors that gauge your risk of dying.

The study was based on the results of 58,000 heart stress tests. The group of people – between 18 and 96 years old – were healthy without any established heart disease trouble. While conducting the tests in Detroit, they were monitored by professionals for chest pain, dizziness or heart rhythm issues.

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After that, the researchers tracked death from any cause in the following decade.

The scoring takes age, gender, your ability to handle physical exertion and your peak heart rate into account. The scientists refer to METs – or metabolic equivalents – as the measure of how much high energy output you can manage. Walking slow requires two METs, for example, while running would take eight.

The scores also ranged from negative 200 up to positive 200. Turns out, patients who scored in the negative had the highest risk of dying within the next decade.

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Patients who scored 100 or higher had a two per cent risk of dying over the next 10 years while those with a score between 0 and 100 faced a three per cent death risk.

That means that two out of 100 people of the same age and gender with a score of 100 or more would die over the next 10 years compared to three out of 100 who score between 0 and 100.

If you scored between 0 and negative 100, you had an 11 per cent risk of dying in the next 10 years while those with scores lower than negative 100 had a 38 per cent risk of dying.

Their full findings were published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Read the study here.

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Sound bite: “The notion that being in good physical shape portends lower death risk is by no means new but we wanted to quantify that risk precisely by age, gender and fitness level, and do so with an elegantly simple equation that requires no additional fancy testing beyond the standard stress test,” according to lead researcher, Dr. Haitham Ahmed, a cardiology fellow out of Hopkins’ School of Medicine.

The counter arguments: There aren’t many. Keep in mind, these tests are already often used to measure how well the heart and lungs are working, especially when they’re under physical demand.

It’s worth noting, though, that the participants in the study were referred for a cardiac stress test. That means they may have been flagged for potential risk.

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Gordon Blackburn, director of cardiac rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic, told Today that the study should be tested on other groups to make sure it’s reliable in a healthy population.

Sound bite: “The bottom line is fitness or exercise capacity is a strong predictor of mortality,” Blackburn said.

Canadian experts weigh in:

The treadmill test isn’t a new concept and has been used by doctors and personal trainers to get a pulse of a patient’s health in a variety of categories, according to Dr. Paul Oh, medical director of the cardiovascular prevention and rehabilitation program at Toronto Rehab Hospital and the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre.

“At least in the hospital environment, certain abnormalities are detected on the treadmill test from heart rate to blood pressure,” he told Global News.

READ MORE: How running for just 10 minutes a day could add years to your life

In the fitness setting, it helps exercisers determine their sweet spot so they aren’t overexerting while still getting a workout.

But there are legitimate ties to survival, he warns.

“The premise is that the longer you’re on a treadmill, the higher your level of fitness and that’s associated with a better level of survival,” he said.

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If you’re struggling within the first few stages, it’s very likely you have an underlying heart problem and that the situation may deteriorate within the next decade.

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The Bruce Protocol is the standard test – you start with stage one, at about 1.7 miles per hour which is an incredibly slow pace, it’s less than a leisurely walk through the park. You work your way up to a jog, at about 4.2 miles per hour until you’re sprinting at about eight miles per hour.

Those who can’t maintain a 2.5 miles per hour speed – a relatively slow pace – could be at high risk, Oh says.

But there is a silver lining: your fitness can be improved upon regardless of your age.

“This is why it’s a good story – your health is modifiable,” Oh says. At the rehab clinic, he’s seen heart attack and stroke survivors turn their health around through physical activity.

“Our experience with thousands and thousands of people is fitness can improve over the course of six months by 20 per cent,” he said.

READ MORE: Fit in your 20s? Your brain health will thank you later, study says

And fitness isn’t the only piece of the puzzle when it comes to heart health: cholesterol, blood pressure, mental health and stress levels are also play key roles.

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Read more about the stress test and how it’s done here.