Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the U.S. Each year, 525,000 Americans suffer their first heart attack; another 210,000 heart attacks occur in those who have already had one. Diet, of course, plays a significant role in heart disease. Stress and physical activity are also significant contributing factors, and research consistently shows exercise is a great way to lower your risk. Exercise also serves double-duty by being an effective form of stress relief.
Physical Activity Lowers Risk of Heart Failure
Research published in 2015 concluded there’s an inverse dose-response relationship between physical activity and your risk for heart failure, and that you can reduce your risk of heart failure with even modest increases in physical activity. It even works if you start later in life. Overall, people who got at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week were 33 percent less likely to develop heart failure than those who were inactive.
For those who were less active, engaging in less than 149 minutes of moderate activity or 74 minutes of vigorous activity a week still benefited with a 20 percent lower heart-failure risk. Moreover, previously inactive people who started exercising during the six-year study period and reached recommended physical activity levels still were able to reduce their risk of heart failure by 22 percent.
Those who went from inactive to walking 30 minutes four times a week lowered their risk by 12 percent. Many other studies have confirmed that even a small amount of exercise is better than nothing at all. Researchers have also concluded that exercise is the best preventive “drug” for heart disease.
Indeed, a 2013 scientific review that compared the effectiveness of exercise versus drug interventions on mortality outcomes found “no statistically detectable differences” between physical activity and medications for heart disease. This is a potent reminder of the power of simple lifestyle changes, as well as the shortcomings of the drug paradigm.
Exercise After Heart Attack Lowers Mortality Risk
Many who have suffered a heart attack tend to worry about exerting themselves afterward, thinking their heart won’t be able to withstand the strain. In the past, exercise was thought to be a trigger of heart attacks and doctors typically prescribed rest. I remember this very clearly; even into the ‘60s the standard of care post heart attack was six weeks of bed rest.
This theory has since been debunked. Most recently, research presented at the 2018 European Society of Cardiology congress found that increasing activity after a heart attack actually halves your risk of dying within the next four years.
Lead author Dr. Örjan Ekblom, associate professor at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences in Stockholm noted, “It is well-known that physically active people are less likely to have a heart attack and more likely to live longer. However, we did not know the impact of exercise on people after a heart attack.” To investigate the effect of exercise on survival, physical activity data and medical records of more than 22,200 heart attack patients were analyzed. As reported by Science Daily:
“A total of 1,087 patients died during an average follow-up of 4.2 years. The researchers analyzed the association between the four categories of physical activity and death, after adjusting for age, sex, smoking, and clinical factors. Compared to patients who were constantly inactive, the risk of death was 37 percent, 51percent and 59 percent lower in patients in the categories of reduced activity, increased activity, or constantly active, respectively.”
According to Ekblom, “Our study shows that patients can reduce their risk of death by becoming physically active after a heart attack.” He believes exercise should be a standard prescription after a patient has had a heart attack, noting that “Exercising twice or more a week should be automatically advocated for heart attack patients in the same way that they receive advice to stop smoking, improve diet and reduce stress.”