Fitness in Youth, Ideal Body Weight Decreases Heart Disease Risk
Young people who are more physically fit have less chance of later developing risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD), according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2003;290:3092–100).
CVD is a leading cause of death in people over 45 years of age. The term CVD refers to conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels of the body. CVD can lead to heart attacks, abnormal dilations of a blood vessel (aneurysms), congestive heart failure, and stroke. Many risk factors are associated with the development of CVD, including high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and genetics.
The current study examined the relationship between fitness level in young adulthood and the development of risk factors for CVD in middle age. A total of 4,487 men and women aged 18 to 30 years were periodically monitored for 15 years for the appearance of diabetes, the metabolic syndrome (a group of abnormalities of metabolism that increases the chance of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes), high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Fitness was assessed by having the participants exercise on a treadmill until they became exhausted. Based on the amount of time they were able to exercise, participants were classified as having a low, moderate, or high level of fitness. A portion of the study group was tested on the treadmill again after 7 years to determine the effect of changes in fitness on the development of CVD risk factors.
At the end of the study period, people who were initially in the low- and moderate-fitness categories had three to six times the risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, and the metabolic syndrome in middle age as did people in the high-fitness category. A portion of the increase in risk was found to be attributable to obesity; however, even when obesity was accounted for, low and moderate fitness levels were still strongly associated with the development of CVD risk factors.
In the participants who were retested on the treadmill after seven years, a large reduction in the risk of developing diabetes and the metabolic syndrome was found among those people whose fitness had improved. Most of the reduction in risk, however, was due to weight loss, not to an improvement in fitness level. This suggests that improvement in fitness alone is not enough to prevent the development of CVD; ideal body weight must also be attained.
This study shows that poor physical fitness is a strong predictor of CVD risk-factor development, and that obesity further increases the risk. Therefore, it is essential to be in good physical shape from a young age to experience a reduction in risk. Other studies have confirmed these findings. Prudent public health policies that target the young to help decrease childhood obesity and promote regular physical activity could have positive long-term effects on public health.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. Dr. Beauchamp is a co-founder and practicing physician at South County Naturopaths, Inc. in Wakefield, RI. Her emphasis is on women’s health, pediatrics, and detoxification.
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