Wellness Check for Denverites: Health Benefits of Living in Higher Elevations

Via Ferrata, Estes Park, Kent Mountain Adventure Center, Climbing,
Photo via Kent Mountain Adventure Center

Living at higher elevations generally comes with breathtaking views and crisp — but thin — air. Due to the lack of oxygen and decreased atmospheric pressure, many people find higher altitudes challenging on their bodies. However, mountain dwellers may find there are health benefits to living in higher elevations.

Denver, a.k.a. the “Mile High City” sits at 5,280 feet above sea level, making it one of the highest-altitude cities in the world. If you’ve lived here your entire life, you’re unlikely to notice any significant differences or changes within your body. However, if you visit somewhere at sea level, you may find it easier to breathe — especially when doing cardiovascular exercise. 

If you’ve spent years at high altitudes, you probably haven’t even noticed the potential ways it has benefitted your health. However, researchers are investigating the possible advantages of spending your life in mountainous areas. Here are five health benefits of living in higher elevations.

Increased Oxygen Levels May Improve Cardiovascular Health

One of the primary health benefits of living at higher elevations is lower oxygen levels. Although it may seem counterintuitive, Denver’s reduced oxygen levels encourage your body to adapt by producing more red blood cells. These red blood cells help you use oxygen better, improving your cardiovascular fitness. Studies have linked this adaptation to enhanced cardiovascular function and protection, particularly for endurance athletes who train at higher altitudes. 

hiking in mountains of Colorado, health benefits of living in higher elevations
Hiking in higher elevations in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Photo by Jessica Hughes.

The combination of reduced oxygen and lower atmospheric pressure stimulates the development of capillaries — tiny vessels that transport blood, nutrients and oxygen throughout your body. These capillaries enhance circulation, encouraging your heart to pump blood more efficiently. 

This is a good sign for potentially vulnerable populations, as heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. While the chances of heart attacks increase for women 10 years post-menopause, living at higher elevations is a potential way to combat this risk. Exercising in Denver’s high-altitude environment is a fantastic way to strengthen your ticker, forcing the body to adapt to less oxygen and reducing strain on the heart. 

Altitude May Lower Your Risk of Cancer

Living in Denver may also lower your risk of developing cancer. Lymphoma, carcinoma, lung and colon cancer are less common in high-altitude areas. However, gallbladder, stomach and skin cancer may be more likely when you live in the mountains or elsewhere above sea level. There are approximately 2,000 new cases of melanoma in Colorado each year due to the state’s high altitude and the fact that there are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy during our 300 days of sunshine. 

A group of women mountain bikers. health benefits of living in higher elevations
Camaraderie at its finest. Photo courtesy of CO Mountain Bike Association.

You May be Able to Manage Your Weight Better

Some studies suggest living at higher elevations may play a role in weight management. Your metabolism speeds up when adapting to lower oxygen levels, which might contribute to weight loss or maintenance. 

For instance, Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the country, with only 25% of the population classified as obese. It’s also the country’s highest-elevated state, sitting at an average altitude of approximately 6,800 feet. 

However, Denver citizens are also very active as there are plenty of outdoor activities and opportunities for recreation. In fact, Denver is ranked the ninth fittest city in the United States. This combination of a more active lifestyle and the body’s metabolic response may help you maintain a healthy weight. While age, activity level, nutrition and lifestyle factors may be at play, researchers believe there is a strong correlation between altitude and weight. 

You May Live Longer

Other health benefits to living in higher elevations might hold the key to a longer and healthier life. Life span is directly linked to the changes your body undergoes to cope with the lower oxygen levels like increased red blood cell production and better heart health. This reduces the risk of heart-related diseases overall, increasing your chances of living a longer, healthier life. 

health benefits of living in higher elevations
Activities at higher elevations may increase your life span.

It Can Boost Athletic Performance

High altitudes can significantly benefit athletic performance thanks to the unique adaptations your body undergoes to cope with less oxygen. These changes can improve aerobic capacity — the volume of oxygen your body can consume during intense workouts. This improvement allows athletes to sustain higher endurance levels during training. 

The body’s response to lower air pressure increases lung efficiency, improves fitness, speeds up recovery and improves performance. The challenging conditions at high altitudes encourage strength, stamina and even mental resilience — essential components for success in various sports. 

For example, if you’re used to jogging around Denver, your body is probably accustomed to the climate. Initially, you may feel breathless, but you’ll improve over time. However, if you take a trip to the coast, the denser air will make each breath easier. These conditions can make your workouts feel lighter and you may even achieve some personal bests. 

Thinner Air but Better Health

The health benefits of living in higher elevations is still a relatively new research topic. While living at higher elevations might offer potential health benefits, it’s essential to consider individual preferences and adaptability. Some people thrive in mountainous environments, while others may have difficulty adjusting if they aren’t originally from there.  

Emerging research suggests mountain living offers much more than picturesque views and fresher air. The potential health benefits make it an intriguing prospect. Whether you’re an athlete training for performance or just someone looking to boost longevity, consider spending some time at higher elevations, which as Denverites, we know a thing or two about.

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