For decades, health experts have been emphasizing the importance of physical activity for heart health. Aerobic exercise, in particular — in which your heart rate is elevated for a prolonged period — has been shown to improve heart and lung function, and may have positive effects in blood vessels throughout your body.
But over the same recent decades, the proportion of Americans who are overweight or obese has steadily increased. While the causes of obesity are complex — involving a combination of genetic inheritance, nutritional intake and environmental factors like stress and chemical exposure, as well as potentially inadequate physical activity — the harmful effects of excess body weight on heart health are clear. So it seems logical to ask whether exercise might help offset some or all of this burden on heart health.
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The results of a new study in this area are somewhat discouraging, showing that physical activity can’t undo the harmful health effects of being overweight or obese on heart health.
Comparing body weight, activity and heart risks
The new study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, looked at over 500,000 adults who were employed by a large occupational risk prevention company in Spain. The average age of study participants was 42, and 68% of them were men. The researchers used data from medical records and insurance claims — including a survey on physical activity levels that was part of participants’ annual exam — to look at the relationship between body weight, physical activity and heart health.
As noted in a press release on the study from the European Society of Cardiology, participants were grouped into three categories based on their body-mass index (BMI, a measure of body weight that takes height into account) — normal weight, overweight or obese. They were also grouped into three physical activity levels — regularly active, insufficiently active or inactive. “Regularly active” was defined as doing at least the minimum amount of exercise recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).
About 42% of participants had a normal body weight, while about 41% were overweight and 18% were obese. Most people, 63.5%, were completely inactive, while 12.3% were insufficiently active and 24.2% were regularly active.
The researchers sought to determine cardiovascular health by looking at three different factors — diabetes status, blood cholesterol and blood pressure. While only 3% of participants had diabetes, 15% had high blood pressure and 30% had high cholesterol.
At all levels of body weight, the researchers found that physical activity — any amount — was associated with a lower risk of diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. This finding supports the idea that everyone can benefit from physical activity, regardless of their body weight. Not surprisingly, more physical activity appeared to be more beneficial.
But the researchers also found that overweight or obese participants had higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol than those with a normal body weight — no matter how physically active they were. As one example, compared with inactive normal-weight participants, regularly active obese participants were about five times as likely to have high blood pressure, four times as likely to have diabetes and twice as likely to have high cholesterol.
Healthy weight more important than exercise
This study supports the idea that while exercise is good for people of all body weights, when it comes to risk factors for cardiovascular disease, it’s much more important to have a healthy body weight. While physical activity may help support a healthy body weight, it’s important for health professionals to focus on other ways to lose weight, when necessary, to limit people’s cardiovascular risk.
“Exercise does not seem to compensate for the negative effects of excess weight,” emphasizes study author Dr. Alejandro Lucia, MD, PhD, of the European University in Madrid, Spain, in the press release. “Weight loss should remain a primary target for health policies together with promoting active lifestyles.”
If you’re overweight or obese and concerned about your cardiovascular risk factors, talk to your doctor about strategies to help you lose weight, along with other ways to reduce your risk of developing heart disease or having a cardiovascular event like a heart attack or stroke.
Want to learn more about protecting your heart? Read “Does Diabetes Hurt Your Heart?” “Fight Off Heart Disease With These Five Heart-Healthy Foods” and “Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease.”