Exercise May Help You Survive A First Heart Attack

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Are you one of the millions of Americans vowing to be more active this year? Well, if you needed extra motivation, here is more evidence that we should all make regular exercise a priority in our lives: People who are fit are more likely to survive their first heart attack, according to a study of nearly 70,000 patients of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

“Our data suggests that doctors working with patients with cardiovascular risk factors should be saying, ‘Mr. Jones, you need to start an exercise program now to improve your fitness and chance of survival, should you experience a heart attack,’” says Clinton Brawner, Ph.D., a clinical exercise physiologist and researcher at Henry Ford Health System. “These findings suggest that higher aerobic fitness before a heart attack is associated with better short-term survival after the first heart attack.”

Several prior studies have reported a strong relationship between fitness and long-term risk of death in various patient populations. This study, conducted by Henry Ford and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is the first to examine the association of early death following a first heart attack. The analysis is part of the Henry Ford Exercise Testing Project, or FIT Project, an ongoing study of nearly 70,000 adults who completed a physician referred exercise stress test at Henry Ford Health System between 1991 and 2009.

In the current analysis of the Henry Ford data, the researchers focused on 2,061 patients who suffered their first heart attack after the stress test, during follow-up. The average time between the exercise test and the first heart attack in this group was six years.

Patients with a high level of fitness during their initial stress test at a Henry Ford Health System facility were 40 percent less likely to die within a year following their first heart attack compared to patients with lower fitness, according to the study.

“We knew that fitter people generally live longer, but we now have evidence linking fitness to survival after a first heart attack,” says Michael Blaha, M.D., M.P.H., director of clinical research at the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins. “It makes sense, but we believe this is the first time there is documentation of that association.”

Those Henry Ford patients who were more active also reduced their likelihood of dying during the year following their first heart attack by 8 to 10 percent for each level of increased fitness they had reached during the stress test.

“The results suggest that low fitness may represent a risk of death following a heart attack that is similar to traditional risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure, or diabetes,” says Dr. Brawner. “The findings suggest doctors should include exercise when counseling patients about controlling their risk factors.”

While up to 50 percent of fitness may be based on genetics, physical activity is the only behavior we have that can improve fitness, adds Dr. Brawner.


Learn more about your risk of heart disease and take the heart risk quiz. For advice on getting active, check out our MoveWell section.

Dr. Clinton Brawner is a clinical exercise physiologist and researcher with the William Clay Center for Athletic Medicine.

Categories: MoveWell

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