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Heart failure, a common, disabling condition in older adults, was nearly half as likely in those who got an hour of moderate exercise or a half hour of vigorous exercise every day, researchers in Sweden found.
"The study shows that high levels of physical activity are associated with considerably lower risk of heart failure," said study researcher Dr. Kasper Andersen, a physician at Uppsala University.
It's important to note that Andersen's study found a link, not a proven cause-and-effect relationship, between activity and lower heart failure risk. Even so, he said, the association makes sense. Physical activity is known to lower the risk of developing high blood pressure, for instance, which is a risk factor for heart failure.
Exercise also lowers the odds of developing obesity and diabetes, which boost the risk of heart failure, he said. Even after adjusting for those risk factors in the study, he said, physical activity still lowered the risk of heart failure.
For the study, the researchers evaluated nearly 40,000 adults of all ages who supplied information on a regular basis to a national Swedish database beginning in 1997. None had heart failure when they began the study.
Andersen's team evaluated their total and leisure time activity and then looked at how it related to their risk of getting heart failure later.
By 2010, about 4 percent had been hospitalized for heart failure -- the heart's inability to pump enough blood and oxygen to the body's other organs.
In the study, published Sept. 2 in the journal Circulation: Heart Failure, the group with the highest activity levels -- more than one hour of moderate or half an hour of vigorous activity daily -- had a 46 percent lower risk of developing heart failure.
The study findings reinforce recommendations to get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week, Andersen said. Higher-level activity can produce additional benefit, he said.
The study data didn't include what type of exercise was done. However, Andersen recommends exercise aimed at cardiovascular conditioning, such as jogging or walking. However, any type of activity is better than nothing, he said.
The study also didn't address whether starting to exercise at midlife is too late to obtain benefits. However, Andersen said, "I think there is good evidence [from other research] that no matter at what age you start to exercise, it has positive effects on your health."
While many studies have looked at the link between exercise and heart disease risk, few have looked at the specific link between exercise and the risk of developing heart failure, said Dr. Gregg Fonarow, professor of cardiology at the University of California, David Geffen School of Medicine.
"Exercise lowers the risk of heart attack, which in turn can lower the risk of subsequent heart failure," said Fonarow, a spokesman for the American Heart Association. "There may be other favorable effects of exercise that directly impact the risk of heart failure."
Some other studies have shown that even after heart failure is diagnosed, patients can benefit from exercise, Fonarow said. "Exercise and cardiac rehabilitation programs are recommended in national guidelines for the treatment of heart failure," he added.
The bottom line? "If preventing heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and premature cardiovascular death were not enough," said Fonarow, "this study provides an additional rationale for all adults to engage in regular physical activity."
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