Regular Exercise—Along With Standing—Is the Key to Longevity

Regular exercise reduces your risk of heart disease in a "dose-response manner."

Posted Jan 18, 2016

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Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Last year, 611,105 American men and women died from cardiovascular diseases. The annual financial price tag of coronary heart disease in the U.S. is $108.9 billion. Obviously, the emotional and psychological toll of cardiovascular disease cannot be measured in dollars and cents.  

In recent decades, a wide range of studies have found that regular physical activity dramatically reduces a person's risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, only about half of U.S. adults meet the federally recommended guidelines of 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous, high-intensity exercise. If you are someone who doesn't meet these guidelines, hopefully this blog post will inspire you to exercise more, sit less, and help you stay alive longer. 

Regular Exercise Is Critical for Heart Health and Longevity

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A new report by the American College of Cardiology Sports and Exercise Cardiology Council (ECC) analyzed recent research and concluded that physical activity is an effective method of preventing heart disease. The January 2016 analysis was published in the The Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

According to the council, small amounts of physical activity—including standing—are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. The ECC also found that larger doses of exercise can lead to an even greater reduction in risk of death from cardiovascular disease in a dose-dependent manner, up to a certain point. 

For this report, the researchers analyzed the volume and intensity of aerobic exercise required for favorable cardiovascular health. They also addressed the question of whether or not there is an amount of endurance aerobic exercise that might backfire and actually increase someone's risk of cardiovascular disease.

The council concluded that moderate and vigorous intensity exercise in amounts lower than the 2008 Physical Activity Guideline recommendations can lower mortality risk in the broad population. In a press release, JACC Editor-in-Chief Valentin Fuster, M.D., Ph.D., said,

"The evidence with regard to exercise continues to unfold and educate the cardiovascular clinical community. The greatest benefit is to simply exercise, regardless of the intensity, while the danger is twofold: to not exercise at all or to exercise intensely, without due preparation."

When It Comes to Exercise, More Is Not Necessarily Better

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The researchers found that increasing your amount of moderate intensity exercise reduces the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. However, the cardiovascular mortality benefits from vigorous intensity exercise level off at a certain point.  

The council concluded, “There is no evidence for an upper limit to exercise-induced health benefits and all amounts of both moderate and vigorous intensity exercise result in a reduction of both all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality compared to physical inactivity.”

Based on my personal experience as a former ultra-endurance athlete, I can attest to the fact that more isn’t always better when it comes to endurance training or competitions. Although I managed to break a Guinness World Record by running 153.76 miles non-stop on a treadmill when I was 38, I retired after that event because it almost killed me. Exercising for 30-60 minutes, most days of the week, is great for your psychological and physical well-being, running non-stop for 24 hours is not.

My personal experience of the potential backlash of too much intense exercise was corroborated by a recent New York Times article, “His Strength Sapped, Top Marathoner Ryan Hall Decides to Stop.” The author of this article, Lindsay Crouse, wrote:

“Hall, 33, who was one of the last remaining hopes for an American front-runner in this summer’s Olympic marathon, is succumbing to chronically low testosterone levels and fatigue so extreme, he says, that he can barely log 12 easy miles a week.

“Up to this point, I always believed my best races were still ahead of me,” said Hall, who has faced a series of physical setbacks since the 2012 London Olympics. “I’ve explored every issue to get back to the level I’ve been at, and my body is not responding. I realized that it was time to stop striving, to finally be satisfied and decide, ‘Mission accomplished.’”

That said, the researchers still say that high volumes of aerobic exercise aren't nearly as bad for cardiovascular outcomes as no exercise at all. According to the council, "the possibility that too much exercise training could be harmful is worthy of investigation, but research results show that even for the very active, lifelong endurance athletes, the benefits of exercise training outweigh the risks."

In a press release, Michael Scott Emery, M.D., co-chair of the ACC Sports and Exercise Cardiology Council, said, "The public media has embraced the idea that exercise may harm the heart and disseminated this message, thereby diverting attention away from the benefits of exercise as a potent intervention for the primary and secondary prevention of heart disease."

Standing Improves Your Heart Health

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One of the most interesting findings of the new report is that standing can also help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. How many hours a day would you estimate that you spend sitting? If you spend the majority of your day sitting, you are not alone.

Sedentary behavior and a chronic lack of physical activity—also known as "sedentarism"—have become a national epidemic. The statistics on sedentarism are alarming. The average American sits for 11 hours a day. Sedentary lifestyles are related to $24 billion in direct medical spending. 20% of all deaths for people over age 35 are linked to physical inactivity and sedentarism.

"Sitting is the new smoking," according to Dr. James Levine, of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative. Levine is the author of, Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It, and the inventor of the treadmill desk. Levine believes that excessive sitting is a more serious public health problem than cigarette smoking. Luckily, the detriments of sedentarism can easily be remedied by standing up and becoming more active.

Conclusion: Sitting Less and Exercising More Reduces Heart Disease Risk

 Andrey Burmakin/Shutterstock
Source: Andrey Burmakin/Shutterstock

I’ve dedicated my life to trying to find ways to motivate people from all walks of life to be more physically active. If you are currently sedentary or inactive, hopefully these findings will inspire you to be more active. My father died prematurely of a heart attack. Like the majority of Americans, my dad didn’t make exercise a priority and was sedentary during the final years of his life. I believe that too much sitting and not enough exercise was the leading cause of his death. 

I'm a 50-year-old parent of an 8-year-old daughter. My prime driving force and source of motivation to exercise regularly, and to sit less, is my daughter. I don't want to die young and leave her fatherless . . . like my father inadvertently abandoned me and my sisters. Regardless of whether or not you're a parent, staying alive for your family and loved ones can be a strong source of motivation to sit less and exercise more for anybody.

From a healthcare provider standpoint, Emery concluded, "The available evidence should prompt clinicians to recommend strongly low and moderate exercise training for the majority of our patients. Equally important are initiatives to promote population health at large through physical activity across the lifespan, as it modulates behavior from childhood into adult life."

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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