For Better Heart Health Exercise Harder, Not Longer

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The general advice for most Americans is: Get more exercise. But the question is what kind of exercise, how intensely and for how long?

A new study suggests that for improvements in cardiovascular health, you should pick up the pace. More intense exercise (brisk walking) was better than longer bouts of lower-intensity activity (leisurely walking) at reducing people’s chances of developing risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, researchers found.

Using data from the Copenhagen City Heart Study, Danish researchers followed more than 10,000 adults ages 21 to 98 from Copenhagen, Denmark, for up to 10 years. The researchers looked specifically at participants’ likelihood of developing metabolic syndrome — a cluster of cardiovascular risk factors, including obesity, high triglycerides, low levels of HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar.

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At the beginning of the study, the participants filled out questionnaires detailing their physical activity, and had their height and body weight assessed. About 21% of women and 27% of men were classified as having metabolic syndrome at the start.

Over 10 years of follow-up, people who reported walking briskly or jogging for exercise cut their risk of metabolic syndrome by nearly half. In comparison, people who walked slowly for exercise — even up to an hour a day — so no preventive benefit.

By the end of the study, an additional 15% of participants had developed metabolic syndrome and their risk depended on their level of activity. Among sedentary participants, 19% had metabolic syndrome, compared with 12% among busier bodies who participated in higher intensity physical activity.

The findings fall generally in line with those of another Danish study published last month reporting that there’s a sweet spot of exercise when it comes to weight loss: specifically, longer exercise is not necessarily better. The current study didn’t look at the participants’ diet, however, which also plays a significant role in helping people maintain a healthy weight and stave off heart disease and diabetes.

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But the main takeaway is that any exercise is better than nothing. Going for long, leisurely walks is unquestionably better for health than sitting on teh couch for an hour. “Even gardening, if it creates a sweat and is done two to four [hours] a week, can help lower risk for diabetes and heart disease,” Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, medical director of primary care sports medicine at Loyola University Health System, in Maywood, Ill., told WebMD.

Still, the current study highlights intensity as a game changer when it comes to reducing metabolic syndrome risk. The authors conclude that if further studies confirm the heart healthy benefits of fast walking, it “may represent a low-cost intervention with minimal side effects and numerous significant health benefits.”

The study was published in the journal BMJ Open.

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