It is well-known that regular exercise can help prevent heart disease. But can it do so even if your family history puts you at a higher risk? Yes, according to a new study that analyzed a large cohort of individuals from the United Kingdom.
“Even if you are at a high genetic risk, you can improve your chances of remaining in good cardiovascular health by doing exercise,” said senior study author Dr. Erik Ingelsson, a professor of medicine at Stanford University in California.
The paper titled “Associations of Fitness, Physical Activity, Strength, and Genetic Risk With Cardiovascular Disease: Longitudinal Analyses in the UK Biobank Study” was published in the journal Circulation on April 9.
As a part of the large study, researchers examined over 500,000 participants from the UK Biobank who were between the ages of 40 to 69. Upon enrollment, none of the participants were diagnosed with heart disease. The researchers measured their physical strength and activity to estimate their associations with cardiovascular events and all-cause death. Treadmill tests and questionnaires were used to assess levels of fitness while hand-held tools were used to measure grip strength.
Next, researchers examined the associations of these factors by classifying participants based on their genetic risk for heart disease and abnormal heart rhythm (atrial fibrillation). The results showed, regardless of genes, better fitness levels were associated with a lower risk of developing heart problems.
In the group of intermediate risk, those with the strongest grips were 36 percent less likely to develop coronary heart disease and 46 percent less likely to develop atrial fibrillation when compared to those with the weakest grip strength. Among participants who were at high genetic risk, cardiorespiratory fitness was linked to a 49 percent lower risk for coronary heart disease and a 60 percent lower risk for atrial fibrillation.
“Fitness and physical activity demonstrated inverse associations with incident cardiovascular disease in the general population, as well as in individuals with elevated genetic risk for these diseases,” the authors stated in conclusion.
Over the years, heart disease has been noted as the leading cause of death in the United States. To lower the risk of heart attack and stroke, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. The simplest change to start with is to take up walking every day. Aerobics, swimming, running, and biking can also make a huge difference when included in weekly routines.
“Exercise really is the best medicine,“ says Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, who is a cardiologist and spokesperson for AHA. Dr.
Steinbaum advises the gym isn’t always necessary as the key is to increase your heart rate. This can also be achieved by dancing, climbing the stairs, or performing jumping jacks.
“So often, I hear people say, ‘Well, heart disease is in my family, so I’m going to get it.’ But even if you have a genetic predisposition, exercise can change your outcome. It’s still in your hands,” she said, highlighting the findings of the study.