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Is fitness level more important than body weight in boosting heart health?

Maintaining or improving your fitness level, even if you don't shed any pounds, may help reduce your risk of death from heart disease and stroke, according to findings published online today in Circulation.

In the study (subscription required), more than 14,000 adult men with an average of 44 years were followed for 11 years. Researchers assessed participants' fitness levels using treadmill tests and calculated their body mass index (BMI). Additionally, volunteers underwent two complete physical exams. Changes in BMI and physical fitness were recorded over six years and researchers followed up with participants after 11 years. According to the journal release, the study showed:

  • Maintaining or improving fitness was associated with a lower death risk even after controlling for BMI change
  • Every unit of increased fitness (measured as MET, metabolic equivalent of task) over six years was associated with a 19 percent lower risk of heart disease and stroke-related deaths and a 15 percent lower risk of death from any cause
  • Becoming less fit was linked to higher death risk, regardless of BMI changes
  • BMI change was not associated with death risks

The researchers say the findings suggest that physical inactivity is an important risk factor for heart disease and stroke. They warn, however, that the results may not apply widely to severely obese, minority or low-income patients since study participants were mostly white from middle or upper class backgrounds.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health and by an unrestricted research grant from The Coca-Cola Company.

Previously: How physical activity influences health, Study shows how physical activity benefits seniors' hearts, Pair of studies show lifestyle may have biggest impact on heart health and
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Photo by Alex Dixon

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