Oxford study: The health benefits of exercise are limitless

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In many areas of life, less is more. However, that doesn’t apply to exercise’s impact on cardiovascular health, according to a new study. Indeed, researchers from the University of Oxford have collected compelling evidence that more is absolutely more with respect to exercise.

In short, the study concludes that there are no limits in terms of what exercise can do for one’s cardiovascular health. There is no point of diminishing returns. Exercise regularly and your cardiovascular system will be in good shape. Exercise more and it will be in better shape.

Put in more scientific terms, study authors report there is no threshold for the inverse association between more exercise and fewer cardiovascular disease events (heart attack, stroke, etc). Among studied individuals, those who worked out the most showed the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease.

“This is the largest ever study of exquisite device-measured physical activity and cardiovascular disease. It shows that physical activity is probably even more important for the prevention of cardiovascular disease than we previously thought. Our findings lend further weight to the new WHO guidelines on physical activity which recommend at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week for all adults,” says co-lead study author Associate Professor Aiden Doherty, from the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Population Health, in a release.

A massive dataset consisting of 90, 211 UK residents was used for this research. All of those individuals agreed to wear a tracking device that measured physical activity over a seven day period annually between 2013 and 2015. At the beginning of this assessment period, none of the participants had dealt with any cardiovascular diseases.

Eventually, 3,617 of those participants ended up being diagnosed with a form of cardiovascular disease. 

When researchers separated participants into categories based on both the intensity and duration of their usual exercise sessions, the main findings of this study became apparent. For each increasing “quartile” of physical activity, participants showed less risk of cardiovascular disease.

So, in comparison to those who worked out the least, the next most active group was 71% as likely to develop a form of heart disease. The next most active group was 59% as likely, and the most active participants were 46% as likely to be diagnosed with cardiovascular disease.

Those specific percentages refer to levels of “moderate physical activity,” but similar findings were drawn regarding “vigorous activity” and “total physical activity” levels as well.

Participants grouped into the least active category also tended to smoke more, have higher BMIs, show higher levels of C-reactive protein, and were most frequently diagnosed with high blood pressure.

“The results of this study enhance confidence that physical activity is likely to be an important way of preventing cardiovascular disease. The potential risk reduction estimated in those engaging in relatively high levels of activity is substantial and justifies a greater emphasis on measures to increase levels of physical activity in the community,” adds co-lead study author Professor Terry Dwyer, from the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Women’s & Reproductive Health.

With these conclusions in mind, should we all start working out 12 hours per day? Probably not, but perhaps consider ramping up the intensity on your next workout, or going for a few more reps than usual. It will undoubtedly be a tougher exercise session, but the subsequent health rewards will also be greater.

“We are confident about the study findings because physical activity was objectively assessed by a more valid tool that can capture frequency, intensity, and duration of physical activity rather than self-reported by the participants,” concludes first study author Dr. Rema Ramakrishnan, from The University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Women’s & Reproductive Health.

The full study can be found here, published in PLOS Medicine.