• Photo for New Study: Even Infrequent Exercise Reduces Heart Failure Risk for Men
    Photo Credit: iStockPhoto

New Study: Even Infrequent Exercise Reduces Heart Failure Risk for Men

By L. K. Regan

Working on those new year's resolutions? Looking for motivation? Well, a new study published this month in the journal Circulation suggests that a healthy weight, and just a bare minimum of exercise, can hugely reduce men's risk of heart failure. And, all of the subjects of the study were doctors.

The study was the work of Dr. Satish Kenchaiah and colleagues at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston (Kenchaiah is now at the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute). Kenchaiah et al accumulated questionnaires from 21, 094 subjects—all of them doctors—who took part in the Physicians' Health Survey from 1982 to 2007. The doctors, aged between 40 and 84 years, answered an annual series of questions about their health, lifestyle, and medical history. By tabulating the results of these questionnaires, the researchers were able to get a sense of the impact of lifestyle choices on long-term health.

Obesity played a huge role in the survey's results. Even once related complications—such as high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol—were taken into account, overweight and obese men still had a hugely increased risk of heart failure, with a 49 percent increase for overweight men and a 180 percent higher risk for obese guys as opposed to the lean subjects. At a press conference, lead author Kenchaiah put this effect in persepctive. The U.S. spends roughly 35 billion dollars per year on its one million hospital admissions and three million outpatient and emergency treatments for heart failure, Kenchaiah said. And that's only the start: "Once heart failure develops, the quality of life deteriorates, and about 80 percent of the men and 70 percent of the women under 65 years with heart failure die within eight years," he added. The new study is noteworthy for showing that not only obese men but also overweight individuals will experience an increased risk of heart failure: "On average, in men who are five feet 10 inches tall, for every seven pounds of excess body weight, the risk of heart failure will go up by 11 percent over the next 20 years," said Kenchaiah.

If obesity has a huge role in causing heart failure, exercise is an equally important mitigating factor. In every category the survey covered, physical activity was associated with lower risk of heart failure. Men who were overweight but active, for instance, had a 49 percent higher risk of heart failure than active men of ideal weight—but inactivity in overweight men came with a 78 percent higher risk. Similarly, the active, obese men were 168 percent more likely to experience heart failure than lean, active men, but that's compared to a whopping 293 percent increase in risk for obese, inactive men. Even among lean men, inactivity was associated with a 19 percent higher risk of heart failure over that of active men. To counter this effect, a bare minimum of exercise is required. Vigorous activity of any kind reduced a man's risk by 18 percent, as long as he broke a sweat, and whether he did so one to three times per month or five to seven times per week. But the latter category, who were the most vigorous exercisers, had a 36 percent lower risk of heart failure than their totally or mostly inactive counterparts.

As Kenchaiah summarized the results, "Higher BMI [Body Mass Index] increased the risk of heart failure in inactive as well as active individuals. By the same token, the beneficial effect of vigorous physical activity in reducing the risk of heart failure was observed in lean, overweight, and also obese men.... Adopting a healthy lifestyle, keeping a normal weight, and exercising regularly will go a long way toward reducing one's risk of heart failure and, in turn, the population burden of heart failure." So, sticking to that new year's resolution may do a lot of good, even if you don't lose all the weight. Just being active helps your heart, and will help keep you on for feet for a long time to come.