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Mar 30, 2011

Physical and Sexual Activity Triggering Acute Cardiac Events

Exercise more likely to trigger heart attack in sedentary patients.

Doctors recommend that adults get at least 20-30 minutes of physical activity a day to help improve and maintain cardiovascular health, but could some types of activity actual increase risk for an acute cardiac event? A recent case-crossover study analyzed results from 14 previous research studies to get to the bottom of this question, and found that episodic physical and sexual activity can greatly increase risk of triggering acute cardiac events. However, risk for triggering cardiac events is greatly reduced and even erased in those with higher activity levels.

While these findings may sound concerning, it is important that especially those concerned about their cardiovascular health understand what they mean. First, this study does not show that episodic activity puts one at enormously high risk for an acute cardiac event, such as a heart attack, acute coronary syndrome and sudden cardiac death. Results simply demonstrate that erratic exercise, such as physical and sexual activity, can temporarily increase risk for acute cardiac events, particularly in those who are sedentary and in comparison to those with higher habitual activity. For example, study participants with the lowest level of physical activity were 4-100 times more likely to trigger a heart attack after episodic physical activity, whereas those more physically active hardly increased their risk for heart attack at all after activity. Therefore, for the less active, physical and sexual activity can temporarily increase risk for triggering acute cardiac events, during and shortly after the activity (typically within 24 hours of the activity).

These findings help further support the role of habitual physical activity on cardiovascular health. Exercise is essential to maintaining good health, and this study illustrates the extreme importance of sustaining healthy physical activity levels over time. It also demonstrates the importance for those less active to consult their physician before participating in new types of physical activity, as this can increase risk for certain cardiac events. However, this should not be discouraging. Even adding one type of habitual physical activity per week can greatly decrease risk for triggering cardiac events over time and improve overall cardiovascular health. 

Questions for You to Consider

  • Do episodic physical activity and sexual activity have equal risk for cardiac events?

  • Among the 14 studies analyzed in the case-crossover study mentioned above, data demonstrates a higher risk for episodic physical activity in triggering a heart attack than sexual activity. On average, episodic physical activity increases risk for a heart attack by 3.45 times, whereas sexual activity only slightly doubles risk. However, habitual activity significantly lowers risk for both types of episodic activities.
  • How much can habitual physical activity decrease risk for acute cardiac events?

  • Risk for triggering an acute cardiac event after episodic physical activity can decrease from 30-45% for each type of habitual physical activity per week. This means that adding just 2-3 types of physical activity each week can help to greatly decrease and even eliminate the increased risk for cardiac events after episodic activity.

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