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Dec 10, 2015

Fit Young Adults Have Lower Risk for Heart Disease Later in Life

Maintaining one’s fitness level is the key to a lower risk profile.

Staying fit in your 20s and 30s could significantly reduce risk for heart disease and death later in life, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

This study analyzed data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study, often referred to as CARDIA. First started in 1985, the CARDIA study has tracked young adults from four U.S. cities to learn about risk factors for heart disease—the No. 1 killer of men and women in the United States.

A total of 4,872 U.S. adults were included in the most recent analysis, all of whom enrolled between the ages of 18 and 30 and were followed for 27 years. At the start of the study and seven years after enrollment, participants underwent treadmill tests to evaluate their fitness levels. Researchers also used cardiovascular imaging to assess build-up of calcium in their coronary arteries, which has been linked to increased risk for heart attack and heart disease.

After following participants for 27 years, researchers found that higher levels of fitness were linked to significantly lower risk of heart disease and death. In fact, each extra minute that young adults were able to exercise on the treadmill at the start of the study was associated with 12% lower risk of heart disease and 15% lower risk of death later in life. Participants whose fitness level dropped in the first seven years of the study had significantly greater risk of heart disease and death compared to those who maintained their fitness.

Interestingly, researchers also found that fitness was not significantly associated with the build-up of calcium in the main arteries. This suggests that while fitness may reduce risk for key outcomes like heart disease and death, it may not prevent calcium build-up in the heart’s arteries.

Still, findings add to a large body of evidence linking fitness to improved heart health. Fitness is an important marker of how much exercise we get on a regular basis. According to study findings, staying fit as a young adult could protect us from heart disease later in life.

As such, authors highlight the importance of adopting healthy lifestyle choices early in life. While improving fitness is beneficial at any stage in life, making healthy choices before cardiovascular risk factors have a chance to develop is key. Healthy choices help ward off risk factors and improve overall health, especially when sustained over a long period of time.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How much exercise do I need?
  • Regular physical activity is important for both children and adults. According to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans:

    • Children and adolescents should get 60 minutes or more of physical activity daily.
    • Optimum exercise levels for adults includes:
      • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (or a combination of the two) each week.
      • Activity spread across the week with periods of aerobic exercise of at least 10 minutes at a time.
      • Muscle strengthening activities 2 or more days a week.
  • What is fitness?
  • In general, fitness refers to being physically sound and healthy as a result of regular exercise. There are three kinds of fitness, including aerobic (strengthening the heart and lungs), muscle strengthening (building muscle) and flexibility (stretching the muscles). Finding a balance between the three to achieve the best possible fitness is important for good health.

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