For people with coronary heart disease, emphasizing physical activity over weight loss is an important distinction for understanding how people can live longer with this disease. Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology believe this is a particularly important message for overweight individuals with heart disease, who may stop exercising as soon as they reach a goal weight or stop exercising if they aren’t successful at losing weight.
In their new observational study, scientists were not too surprised by the results, which ultimately showed how important physical activity is for people with heart disease. Researchers used survey data from a health study conducted in Norway, including data from 3307 individuals with coronary heart disease, collected from examinations in 1985, 1996, 2007, and 2014.
At the end of the study period, 1493 participants died, with just over half of these deaths being due to heart disease. Participants were grouped into three physical activity categories: active but below the recommended level of activity (150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity or 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity), at the recommended level, and above the recommended level.
“We've been able to look at change over time, and not many studies have done that,” explained study researcher Trine Moholdt.
First and foremost, Moholdt and her collaborators found that the risk of death was higher for study participants who did not complete the recommended levels of physical activity, compared to participants who met that recommendation.
However, even a small amount of exercise can go a long way.
"Even being somewhat active is better than being inactive, but patients have to maintain the activity level,” Moholdt explained. “Physical activity is perishable - if you snooze you lose its benefits.”
An important distinction is that, according to the study’s results, weight gain does not increase risk for already overweight patients, if that person is physically active. In fact, weight loss was linked to increased rates of death for study participants who were normal weight at the beginning of the study.
But, Moholdt adds, this trend could also be at least partly explained by people with coronary heart disease who lose weight being sicker.
Moholdt also points out that the study’s results do not mean that it is unhealthy for an overweight person with heart disease to lose weight. Rather, weight loss in overweight individuals paired with a physically active lifestyle could be doubly beneficial for the patient’s longevity.
The bottom line? People who are physically active live longer than those who are inactive.
"The clinical guidelines for heart disease patients currently include having normal weight and being physically active,” Moholdt concluded. “I would put more emphasis on the exercise aspect.”
The present study was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.