Exercise Payoff: Better Chances of Surviving a Heart Attack

Health Writer

There is a long list of benefits associated with a regular exercise habit. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), moderate intensity exercise like brisk walking is safe for most people and the benefits from accumulated minutes of exercise weekly include: Weight control, reduced risk of heart disease, reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, improved mental health and mood, bone density support, reduced risk of certain cancers and longevity. Research now suggests that if you regularly exercise, you have a better chance of survival if you have a heart attack.

The study published in the April 2017 issue of the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, acknowledged research that has already established the fact that regular exercise helps to lower ones risk of having a heart attack. Animal studies have also shown that “active animals” have smaller or milder heart attacks and those heart attacks are also less likely to be fatal. The researchers wanted to see if the same would hold true in people.

It’s important to quickly review different levels and types of exercise. Cardiovascular (aerobic) exercise involves exercise efforts that raise your heart rate and ultimately burn calories while helping to strengthen your cardiac muscle. Intensity refers to how hard you push yourself during that cardiovascular effort. Taking a heart rate multiple times during cardiovascular exercise can help you to determine if your effort is mild, moderate, or intense. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is one type of cardiovascular exercise that includes short bursts of very high intensity effort and then recovery periods.

Resistance (strength) training involves the use of free weights or weight machines to tax your muscles with a weight load, so that you ultimately cause muscle injury and inflammation. This process helps to maintain and to build new muscle. If you minimize rest periods, you can also create an aerobic component to your resistance training effort.

Exercise experts measure “levels of intensity” using metabolic equivalents or METs. One MET equals the amount of energy that an average person would burn sitting quietly (about 70 calories in an hour). Moderate activity levels fall in the range of three to six METs, while vigorous activity burns more than six METs.

Other important terms are:

  • Sedentary, which describes sitting or non-active phases of your day.
  • Light activity, which refers to a casual slow walk or other very slow-paced activities like light housework.

  • Moderate activity, a physical effort resulting in a somewhat elevated heart rate and increased breath pace, like: walking four miles per hour, vacuuming or mopping floors, mowing the lawn, bicycling slowly, playing tennis doubles.

  • Intense (vigorous) activity, which is an effort that achieves a significantly higher heart rate and breathing pace. Examples include: race walking, jogging, running, swimming laps, aerobic dancing, bicycling at 10 miles per hour or faster, jumping rope, heavy gardening, playing tennis (singles).

  • Duration or how long a person sustains the specific level of exercise.

Researchers at University of Copenhagen in Denmark started this research project in the 1970s by reviewing data compiled in a survey called the Copenhagen City Heart Study. At the start of the study, more than 14,000 survey subjects were classified as sedentary or having light, moderate or intense levels of physical activity. None of the subjects had a history of a heart attack.

Subjects were followed until the year 2013. At that the point, the researchers found that 1,664 had experienced a heart attack at some point since the start of the study, and 425 died during or very quickly after the heart event. The researchers correlated activity levels to the heart attack and survival data and found that even light levels of exercise helped to reduce the risk of dying, if an individual did sustain a heart attack. In fact, light exercise reduced risk of dying by 32 percent when compared to sedentary individuals. More intense exercise was even more protective. Moderate and intense exercisers reduced their risk of dying from a heart attack by almost 47 percent compared to sedentary counterparts. This showed a dose-related response to exercise, meaning more intense effort was even better.

Why does a regular exercise habit support better survival rates? The researchers theorize that exercise may help individuals to develop collateral blood vessels in the heart, and those new “extra vessels” help to make sure that the heart gets sufficient blood flow, even during a serious heart event. Another theory is that exercise may increase the levels of certain substances that support and improve blood flow, helping to reduce the amount of injury that occurs during a heart attack. The less heart tissue injured and permanently compromised, the better the survival rates.

The study was an observational study so the researchers stop short of suggesting a direct cause and effect. Given what we know about exercise and its impact, the researchers point to the conclusion that this may be another payoff from a regular exercise habit. The findings also highlight the benefits of continuing to exercise (following recommended guidelines) even after a person has a heart attack.

It seems that your new exercise motto should be: The more I exercise, the more likely I will survive a heart attack if I have one.” Now that’s a reason to get motivated!!

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