Cardio Fitness Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Diana J. Smith
  • New research published in PLOS Medicine found that there may be no limits to the benefits of cardio exercise, especially among active people—such as runners.
  • Even by increasing your daily physical activity by as little as 1,000 steps, you can improve your cardio fitness and may lower your risk of heart disease.
  • Those who logged the most physical activity had about about 60 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who logged minimal activity.

    As runners, we already know that high levels of physical activity, including logging long runs, can improve our cardio fitness and has a slew of health benefits. And new research published in PLOS Medicine further supports you getting out there for a daily run or walk. Researchers found that the more active you are, the less at-risk you are for cardiovascular disease, with no threshold to the benefits. This effect was particularly pronounced in active people, such as runners.

    Researchers gathered data from accelerometers worn by over 90,000 participants, which tracked their physical activity over the course of seven days. People were then divided into four groups from least to most active. Those who were most active (in the top 25 percent) had an average reduction of 48 percent to 57 percent in their risk of cardiovascular disease, Aiden Doherty, associate professor in the Nuffield Department of Population Health and the University of Oxford told Runner’s World.

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    This estimated benefit is greater than what previous studies using questionnaires to measure physical activity have obtained and suggests physical activity might be even more important for health than previously anticipated, Terrence Dwyer, AO, MD, Emeritus Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Oxford, told Runner’s World.

    While the exact reason for this correlation is unknown, part of the protective effect is probably from lower levels of obesity, lower risk of diabetes, better blood lipid profile (particularly with triglycerides), and lower blood pressure. However, some of the effect might be directly related to a ‘fitter’ heart that is not as readily damaged when problems arise, Dwyer said.

    As the research was done with “research-grade, Fitbit-like fitness trackers,” typically you wouldn’t use these during workouts or know how to properly interpret the data, so the results can’t be directly replicated in your day-to-day workouts. However, the results suggest there is considerable benefit from increasing physical activity from the lowest levels, where people are sedentary for most of the day, to just a little physical activity.

    “In another study I was involved in, we used pedometers, which provide simpler data for those who are thinking of this in terms of how far they might walk or run. In that study, we found benefit seemed to start as people increased steps from 2 to 3,000 steps per day, even by 1,000 steps or less than half a mile” Dwyer said.

    And, these findings further emphasize the new World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on physical activity which recommend at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week for all adults.

    Researchers aren’t sure exactly why more cardio fitness correlates with a lower risk of heart disease. One explanation might be that an increase in total energy output as physical activity increases might provide continuing improvement in the risk factors (such as obesity or high blood pressure).

    “Really, though, this should not be surprising as we might expect that if you do something that is ‘good’ for you, then benefits might increase as one does more,” Dwyer said.

    And though data generally suggests you can benefit from more physical activity, be sure to check in with your doctor before drastically changing up your routine.

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