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Does Physical Fitness Prevent Heart Attacks?

Feb 27, 2016

New study examines cardiovascular impact of higher levels of exercise; contribution of fitness to surviving first heart attack.

A recent study published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings suggests that people who exercise habitually are more likely to survive their first heart attack, and an overall absence of exercise may be life threatening as it increases the risk of death following a cardiac arrest.


The study performed by Henry Ford and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine focused on nearly 70,000 adults who went through an exercise stress test at Henry Ford Health System between the years 1991 and 2009. They aimed at observing a little over 2,000 patients who had a heart attack after their stress test. What they found was that patients who had high levels of fitness during these tests were nearly 40 percent less likely to die within a year’s time of their first heart attack. Michael Blaha, director of clinical research at the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease and assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said, “We knew that fitter people generally live longer, but we now have evidence linking fitness to survival after a first heart attack…it makes sense, but we believe this is the first time there is documentation of that association.” This retrospective cohort study showed that patients who passed away early were more likely to be “older, less fit, non-obese, have treated hypertension, have a longer duration from baseline to incident to myocardial infarction.”

The findings in this study imply that staying physically fit and active are essential for patients who have experienced a myocardial infarction. Though the focus was specific to the designated patient population, the actual findings apply to many other disease states and conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and so on. Specific to heart disease and stroke, daily physical activity can help prevent the condition by strengthening the heart muscle, which in turn lowers blood pressure, raises high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels and lowers low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, improving overall blood flow and increasing the heart’s working capacity. On top of this, physical activity helps to reduce body fat by building or preserving muscle mass and improving the body’s ability to use calories. Combined with proper nutrition, physical activity can significantly help with controlling or preventing obesity, a help to patients who are prone to having a heart attack.

There were limitations to the study and there is need for follow up. Exercise is the key to resolving or at least significantly reducing many of the major disease states. Healthcare providers need to heavily enforce the importance of making exercise a routine habit; there needs to be a significant shift in the mindset of many individuals and that will only start when they are constantly reminded and encouraged to make healthier life choices.

Practice Pearls:

  • Patients who exercise regularly were more likely to survive their first heart attack.
  • Physical activity in general is the key to resolving or at the very least improving many of the disease states.
  • It’s the duty of all healthcare providers to encourage patients to make healthier life choices.

Researched and prepared by Javeria Fayyaz, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate LECOM of Pharmacy, reviewed by Dave Joffe, BSPharm, CDE

“Exercise May Help You Survive a First Heart Attack.” Henry Ford Health System. N.p., 1 Feb. 2016. Web. 5 Feb. 2016.

Gabriel E. Shaya, Mouaz H. Al-Mallah, Rupert K. Hung, Khurram Nasir, Roger S. Blumenthal, Jonathan K. Ehrman, Steven J. Keteyian, Clinton A. Brawner, Waqas T. Qureshi, Michael J. Blaha. High Exercise Capacity Attenuates the Risk of Early Mortality After a First Myocardial Infarction. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2016; 91 (2): 129

Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Higher fitness linked to reduced risk of death after first heart attack.” ScienceDaily, 1 February 2016.