How Living at High Altitude Is Good for Your Heart

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Stroll down Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado, and you’ll see a parade of washboard abs and chiseled calves. It’s no wonder this utopia at 5,280 feet has the lowest rate of heart attacks of any U.S. city. But is this town’s superior heart health due entirely to the world-class cycling routes and grueling running trails — and Boulderites’ ambition to tackle them? Or does living at altitude, as many claim, really give these people an extra edge?

According to a new study from Spain, dwelling at higher elevations may in fact protect against metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol that can lead to heart disease. After tracking nearly 7,000 healthy adults for 10 years, researchers from the Centre for Nutrition Research at the University of Navarra discovered that those who lived at 1,500 feet or above had a 25 percent lower risk of metabolic syndrome than those residing below.

You might assume the higher-altitude people probably exercised more, as Boulderites do, leading to healthier hearts. But in fact, the study participants who lived above 1,500 feet got less physical activity than those at sea level. At the same time, they consumed more total calories and had slightly lower body-mass indexes than the people living at low altitude. So to recap, the high-country folks ate more, worked out less, and yet weighed less, equating to a much lower risk of metabolic syndrome. 

Clearly, the reduced risk is likely linked to altitude, says lead study author Pedro González Muniesa. “As you ascend, the atmospheric pressure is reduced,” he explains. “This makes it more difficult to breathe the same amount of oxygen that you’d be able to at sea level. When your body has to work harder to take in oxygen, it improves your cardiovascular fitness, enhances insulin sensitivity, and promotes weight loss, as other studies have shown.” All of these benefits, Muniesa says, can lower your risk of metabolic syndrome.

These findings basically confirm the reasons why elite athletes train at altitude. But they also suggest that regular guys living at higher elevations don’t have to exercise as often or as hard to score the same benefits as men living at lower ones. “In the long term, the extra effort to breathe seems to counteract the lower amount of physical activity and greater food intake,” Muniesa says.

Based on this study, it doesn’t take Rocky Mountain living to experience these effects. American cities that sit at 1,500 or above include Tucson, El Paso, Spokane, and Las Vegas. And beyond the big cities, plenty of people live above that elevation all over the U.S. — in Virginia, Vermont, California, Montana, the Dakotas, and even Kansas.

Even so, no matter how close to the sky you call home, don’t expect altitude alone to spare you from poor health. Sure, you might get a slight leg up on your workouts and some added protection for your heart, but if your diet is junk and you never exercise, you’ll wind up in trouble — even if you do live Boulder.