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Childhood fitness leads to healthy lungs as adult

Possible link between lung function and fitness in youth

Adrian O'Dowd

Thursday, 01 February 2018

People who are physically fitter in childhood are more likely to have better lung function as young adults, suggests a large study* published today in the European Respiratory Journal.

The same applies to children whose fitness improves during childhood and adolescence said researchers led by Professor Bob Hancox, a respiratory specialist at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

Good lung function in early adult life is believed to lower the risk of developing chronic lung disease later in life. This form of disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is a leading cause of global ill health and is projected to get worse due to an ageing population.

There is little evidence, so far, that childhood fitness has any impact on adult lung function.

The new research included a total of 2,406 children, combining a study of 1,037 children in Dunedin, New Zealand, and a second group of 1,369 in Odense, Denmark.

The researchers said that the two groups represented the largest published study that has objectively measured fitness and lung function through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.

In the Danish group, aerobic fitness was tested at ages nine, 15, 21 and 29 using an exercise bike to see how much exercise each person could do before they were exhausted.

The New Zealand study used a cycling test at ages 15, 26, 32, and 38 to estimate fitness from the heart rate response to exercise.

Lung function tests were done at the same ages in both studies.

Results showed that fitter children had better lung function and the more their fitness improved during childhood, the greater their lung capacity when they reached adulthood.

The link between lung function and fitness remained after the researchers took account of factors such as height, weight, asthma, and smoking. The results also showed a stronger effect in boys than girls.

The researchers said their findings provided evidence that keeping children fit could help reduce the burden of lung disease in the future.

Professor Hancox said: “This study shows that children who are physically fit go on to have better lung function as young adults. We think that this could reduce the risk of them developing chronic lung diseases as they get older.

“We don’t know why fitness and lung function are linked but one explanation could be that fitter people have better respiratory muscle strength as well as other muscle strength.”

The two studies are ongoing and the researchers said they hoped to collect data on fitness and lung function as the participants got older.

Professor Hancox added: “We need to keep studying these people to find out whether the association between fitness and lung function continues into later adulthood. If it does, improving and maintaining fitness could translate into important reductions in chronic lung disease.”

Thierry Troosters, president-elect of the European Respiratory Society and professor of rehabilitation sciences at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, said: “This paper provides further support for encouraging active children and adolescents.”


*Hancox RJ, Rasmussen F. Does physical fitness enhance lung function in children and young adults? Eur Respir J 2018; 51: 1701374. DOI:10.1183/13993003.01374-2017

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