Q. I live at 6,000 feet of altitude and am 67 years old. Does exercising at that high an altitude confer any additional health benefits, especially for the cardiovascular system?
A. I can’t think why regular exercise would be any more beneficial for someone who lives at 6,000 feet than it is for someone like me who exercises regularly near sea level—so long as we both remain living at those altitudes. But I’ll bet you do have an advantage over me when you come down to sea level.
At 6,000 feet the air has a lower oxygen tension. Your body has adapted to that. You make more oxygen-carrying red blood cells than I do. Also, your blood has less fluid in it than mine, so your heart works a bit less hard than mine does.
You’re 67. At that age, many people have some degree of atherosclerosis in the arteries of their heart. Suppose a plaque of atherosclerosis ruptures and suddenly reduces blood supply (and therefore oxygen supply) to a part of your heart, threatening a heart attack. If that happens to both you and me when we’re at sea level, with more oxygen-carrying red blood cells than me and a heart working a bit more efficiently than mine, you should be better able to withstand the threat to your heart than I.
—Anthony L. Komaroff, M.D.
Editor in Chief
Harvard Health Letter