Harvard Study Puts Men's Push-Up Capacity in the Spotlight

New research links push-up capacity with lower risk of heart disease among men.

Posted Feb 15, 2019

Active, middle-aged men who can do 40 push-ups in a row have a significantly lower risk of future cardiovascular disease (CVD) in the decade following a baseline physical exam than age-matched peers who can do fewer than 10 push-ups, according to a new study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. These findings (Yang et al., 2019) were published February 15 in JAMA Network Open.

arekmalang/iStock
Source: arekmalang/iStock

Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term that generally refers to narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to chest pain, angina, arrhythmia, or other cardiovascular events such as a heart attack, sudden cardiac arrest, or stroke.

Please note: This study, "Association Between Push-up Exercise Capacity and Future Cardiovascular Events Among Active Adult Men,” reports on a correlation between specific variables. These findings do not imply that doing push-ups prevents future CVD or that not doing push-ups causes heart disease. 

"Our findings provide evidence that push-up capacity could be an easy, no-cost method to help assess cardiovascular disease risk in almost any setting. Surprisingly, push-up capacity was more strongly associated with cardiovascular disease risk than the results of submaximal treadmill tests," first author Justin Yang of the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said in a statement.

For this study, Yang and colleagues analyzed the health date of 1,104 active male firefighters. Push-up capacity data was collected from 2000 to 2010. The average age of participants was 39.6, but their ages ranged from 21-66.

Each firefighter’s push-up capacity and his submaximal treadmill exercise tolerance were measured at the beginning of the study and every subsequent year during annual physical examinations.

The researchers emphasize that the population of this study consisted solely of occupationally active men. Therefore, the results may not be generalizable to men or women who are less active on a daily basis. 

Senior author Stefanos Kales, who is a professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard Chan School and chief of occupational medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance summed up the significance of this push-up study in one sentence: “This study emphasizes the importance of physical fitness on health, and why clinicians should assess fitness during clinical encounters.”

Drop and Give Me 40: “You Ready to Quit Now, Mayo?!?”

When you think about doing push-ups, what memories or visualizations pop into your mind? The most vivid memory I have of doing push-ups is the humiliation of being an LGBTQ youth in the seventh grade and feeling like the quintessential 98-pound weakling in PE class.

My gym teacher at the time acted like a sadistic (and homophobic) drill sergeant who gauged our adolescent “manliness” by how many chin-ups and push-ups each teenage boy could do in a row. At the time, it was impossible for me to do more than 10 push-ups. I was always near the bottom of the annual Phys Ed push-up rankings in middle school, which made me feel like a loser.

Even when I started lifting weights and jogging in high school, I avoided doing push-ups because they triggered some shameful PTSD-like symptoms rooted in a textbook case of "sissy-boy syndrome" and always being the "last one picked" to join any group during gym class.

Unexpectedly, my gut-feeling about doing push-ups changed in 1983 after I rented the video of An Officer and a Gentleman and saw the heart-wrenching—“Deep down inside you know all these other boys and girls are better than you...You ready to quit now, Mayo?!?"—scene with Richard Gere doing push-ups at boot camp.

As part of my coming-of-age commitment to getting in shape when I was seventeen, I’d rewind the VHS and watch this scene again and again for inspiration.

Because of this movie, I learned how to romanticize the grittiness of doing lots of push-ups in a row. So, whenever I was at the gym, I’d play the theme song “Up Where We Belong” on my Walkman and push myself as hard as I could to do 100+ push-ups in a row—just like Gere did in a muddy puddle while being yelled at by Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman.

Throughout middle-age, I’ve stayed physically active, but I stopped doing push-ups decades ago. Immediately after reading the new Harvard study this morning, I got down on all fours next to my desk and said to myself in a half-kidding gutsy third-person self-talking, drill sergeant voice: “OK, Bergland. Drop and give me 40. NOW!” Unfortunately, I failed the 40 push-up challenge.

The good news: Justin Yang and colleagues’ recent study has inspired me to start doing push-ups on a regular basis starting today. Hopefully, reading this post—and learning about the correlative link between push-ups and lower CVD risk—will inspire people of all ages and gender identity to stay physically active and to make push-ups a part of your workout routine across a lifespan. 

In closing, below is another example of “push-up inspiration” from Ellen DeGeneres and Michelle Obama during their legendary push-up showdown. (Michelle Obama defends her push-ups here.)

As always: Please use common sense and consult with your primary care provider before beginning any new exercise regimen or performing vigorous physical activity.

References

Justin Yang, Costas A. Christophi, Andrea Farioli, Dorothee M. Baur, Steven Moffat, Terrell W. Zollinger, and Stefanos N. Kale. "Association Between Push-up Exercise Capacity and Future Cardiovascular Events Among Active Adult Men." JAMA Network Open (First published: February 15, 2019) DOI: 10.1001./jamanetworkopen.2018.8341