How higher-intensity exercise can improve your heart health

  • A new study has found that increasing vigorous physical activity can significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Brisk activity (such as jogging or brisk walking) may provide more benefits than moderate activity (such as walking), even when overall activity does not change.
  • The study found that increasing vigorous exercise can lead to up to a 40% drop in heart disease.

A recent study on activity levels and heart health found that vigorous physical activity is more likely to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease than more moderate levels of exercise.

Although physical activity has long been known to reduce the incidence of certain heart diseases, the specific type of activity is generally not separated from the duration of the activity.

Brisk activity (such as running) may provide more benefits than moderate activity (such as walking), even when overall activity does not change. The study found that increasing vigorous exercise can lead to up to a 40% drop in heart disease.

The researchers said that besides exercise intensity, the total number of hours of physical activity may make the biggest difference.

Paddy Dempsey, PhD, research fellow at the University of Leicester and the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, and first author of the report, said the wearable fitness trackers helped the team get better data .

“Most large-scale studies to date have used questionnaires to determine participants’ physical activity levels, but the intensity and duration of physical activity is difficult to accurately remember, especially when it comes to low-intensity everyday activities such as washing a car or sorting laundry,” Dempsey said in a statement. “Without accurate records of duration and intensity of physical activity, it was not possible to distinguish the contribution of more vigorous physical activity from that of the total volume of physical activity.”

The study, published on October 27 inEuropean Heart Journaltracked the exercise levels of 88,000 participants in the UK for a week by having them use a wearable device that tracked their steps. (Previous studies often used activity diaries that participants filled out, which may have introduced error, as many overestimated their activity level.) Physical activity levels were calculated from the movement data collected and how much of that activity was brisk and how moderate it was. The subjects were then followed for an average of 6.8 years, and their subsequent incidence of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack or stroke, was recorded. All participants were middle-aged and did not have any current cardiovascular disease.

“The 88,000-person wearable physical activity study is unique because of the use of research-grade activity trackers to measure the volume and intensity of physical activity. In this way, the researchers avoided the more common research protocol of using questionnaires to determine participants’ physical activity level,” said Dr. Rachel-Maria Brown Talaska, director of inpatient cardiology services at Lenox Hill Hospital.

When the data were fully collected and analyzed, it was found that the total volume of activity was associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

It also found that when the degree of vigorous exercise increased from 10 percent of daily activity to 20 percent, the risk of cardiovascular disease decreased by another 14 percent, even when levels of daily activity were still low. The lowest rates of cardiovascular disease were found in those who had higher levels of daily activity and higher levels of vigorous-to-moderate activity.

“New evidence shows that not only can sedentary behavior be deadly with increased cardiac events, but that physical activity is not only a modifier, but the intensity of that physical activity matters. The more vigorous your workouts, the greater the cardiac protection,” said Dr. Jane Morgan, cardiologist and executive director of Health and Community Education at Piedmont Healthcare, Inc.

Increasing total activity, but not increasing the rate of vigorous exercise, did not further reduce the risk of heart disease. If total activity increased and the rate of vigorous exercise increased, the incidence of cardiovascular disease was further reduced.

The rate of heart disease fell by 23 percent when the proportion of moderate to vigorous physical activity rose by 20 percent. If the amount of vigorous exercise increased even more, by 40 percent, the rate of heart disease dropped by 40 percent.

“Although the type of physical activity was not specifically studied, modifying current habits or adopting new ones can be chosen based on what fits into your lifestyle,” Morgan added. The study authors recommend increasing the pace of vigorous activity by trying to cover the same distance in a shorter period of time, such as walking at a faster pace or doing more aerobics in the same period of time as before. They also added that overall activity levels are still important, and even if someone is unable to increase their level of active activity by any significant amount, lower-intensity exercise is still valuable.

Both doctors agreed that the most important part of the study was the importance of achieving higher overall activity levels. Brown Talaska has offered several new activities for those looking to increase the intensity of their exercise.

“Examples of vigorous physical activity include running, swimming, singles tennis, and jumping rope.” She also suggested that “patients should gradually increase physical activity in partnership with their health care provider; if you do nothing, do something – possibly light physical activity. If you do something – like light physical activity, then do more – like moderate or vigorous activity. Aim for the next level! Your heart will thank you.”

Morgan gave similar advice. “If you’re a walker like I am, it’s time to pick up the pace. If you’re a pilates enthusiast like me, push yourself to do just a few more reps of the moves. Get your heart rate up and improve your overall health. Who knows? You might even lose a few pounds in the process.”

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