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  • Moderate physical activities like walking, cycling, and yoga can help people lower their risk of heart failure according to a new study.
  • Vigorous types of physical activity can also reduce the risk of heart failure.
  • But researchers say very high amounts of vigorous exercise may not offer additional benefits.

Engaging more often in moderate physical activity during the week could help many Americans lower their risk of heart failure, according to a new study.

Moderate exercise includes activities such as walking at a moderate or brisk pace, bicycling, yoga, tennis, basketball, dancing, and recreational swimming.

More vigorous types of physical activity could also reduce the risk of heart failure, but researchers say very high amounts of vigorous exercise may not offer additional benefits.

In addition, they found that the benefits of vigorous physical activity were highest when people also engaged in moderate-intensity activities during the week.

This study fits with other research showing the link between regular exercise and improved heart health — including a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and cardiovascular disease.

But by using activity monitors to track how often and in what way people moved during the week, researchers were able to tease apart the separate heart-related benefits of moderate and vigorous physical activity.

Lower heart failure risk

In the study, published Aug. 29 in the journal Circulation, researchers analyzed data between 2013 and 2015 on more than 94,000 adults enrolled in the UK Biobank, a large research database that includes health information on half a million adults in the United Kingdom.

For the current study, participants wore an activity monitor on their wrist for seven consecutive days, 24 hours per day. This provided researchers with information about the intensity and duration of people’s physical activity. 

None of those involved in the study had been diagnosed with heart failure or previously had a heart attack.

Researchers followed participants for an average of 6.1 years after they had their activity levels measured, to see how many people were diagnosed with heart failure during that time.

Heart failure occurs when the heart doesn’t pump blood as well as it should. This can cause blood to back up, leading to fluid collecting in the lungs, which makes it difficult for a person to breathe.

An estimated 6.2 million Americans have heart failure, with this condition contributing to over 379,000 deaths in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new study suggests that regular physical activity may reduce the risk of developing heart failure.

Researchers found that people who did 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity per week had a 63% lower risk of heart failure.

Those who logged 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week had a 66% lower risk of heart failure.

Both of these were in relation to people who did little to no moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

These amounts of physical activity are the minimum recommended by the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

John Schuna Jr., PhD, an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore., said much research on the protective effects of physical activity against cardiovascular disease has focused on acute conditions such as heart attack and stroke, and deaths related to those.

But “this is really the first investigation demonstrating that objectively-measured physical activity consistent with achieving current guidelines for aerobic-based activities significantly reduces risk for heart failure,” he said. 

Benefits of additional moderate exercise 

The study results also showed that for both moderate and vigorous physical activity, some heart-related benefits appeared even at low levels of activity.

“These findings indicate that every physical movement counts. A leisurely, 10-minute walk is better than sitting and no physical activity,” study author Frederick K. Ho, PhD, a lecturer in public health at the University of Glasgow in Glasgow, Scotland, said in a news release.

However, “if possible, try to walk a little faster, which increases the intensity and potential benefits of exercise,” he added.

The results also suggest that going beyond the minimum recommended level of moderate physical activity may provide greater protection against heart failure.

Researchers found that the risk of heart failure continued to drop for moderate physical activity levels up to 600 minutes per week. After that, the benefits plateaued.

For vigorous physical activity, the benefits were highest at 75 to 150 minutes per week, but only if people were also doing at least 300 minutes per week of moderate physical activity.

Some people choose vigorous exercise because they can get a more intense workout in a shorter time. But the results of this study suggest that vigorous activities alone may not be enough to provide the most benefit for the heart.

The new study is observational, so it cannot prove that certain patterns of physical activity directly lower the risk of developing heart failure. But it fits with a growing body of research on the heart-related benefits of exercise.

Another limitation of the study is that the majority of participants in the UK Biobank are white, so additional research will be needed to see how physical activity affects the risk of heart failure in other groups of people.

Exercising for heart health

Overall, the new study supports the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans’ recommendation that people should “move more and sit less throughout the day” — specifically by doing moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

Exercise at these intensities has been shown to have the most benefits for heart health and other aspects of health.

How people meet the guidelines can be done in a variety of ways, with any number of physical activities.

“To achieve these targets safely, individuals can choose any combination of moderate- or vigorous-intensity activities which they are comfortable and familiar with completing,” said Schuna.

One of the most commonly recommended activities is walking, he said, which carries a low risk of injury.

In addition, “it is an easy-to-access activity for individuals across the age and disability spectrum,” he said, pointing out that older and disabled adults are often able to walk successfully.

There are also many moderate physical activities that you may not think of as “exercise,” such as gardening and yard work, certain kinds of housework, playing with children and shoveling snow.

Physical activity is also appropriate for people who already have a heart condition, although people with a heart condition — or other medical conditions — should check with their doctor before starting any new exercise program.

“Physical activity is important before and after you develop a heart condition,” said Dr. Eugene C. DePasquale, a cardiologist with Keck Medicine of USC, “because there is evidence that if you do physical activity after a heart attack or after you develop heart failure, that can actually help improve your long-term success.”

Sticking with an exercise program

The new study also suggests that once you are consistently meeting the physical activity guidelines, there may be additional benefit in adding more moderate physical activity — up to 600 minutes a week total.

But to get there, you’ll want to first develop a habit of regular physical activity, which is often the biggest challenge for many people starting out.

Schuna said much research has been done to try to figure out what helps people stick with exercise — so far, with “no magic bullet.”

In addition, what motivates one person to bike to work every day may not help another person get to the gym in the morning.

However, Schuna said one thing that has been shown to predict whether people will stick with their physical activity program is social support.

“Individuals who are surrounded by friends and/or family that are socially supportive of physical activity … will tend to have greater success sticking with regular exercise and physical activity programs,” he said.

These supportive people may be physically active themselves, he said, or they might just keep encouraging you to keep moving throughout the week.

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