Doing this can prevent death from a heart attack

Study shows moderate to high amounts of physical activity can increase the likelihood of surviving a heart attack.

Dave Yasvinski February 15, 2021
man in front of computer while exercising

Study shows that regular exercise can mean the difference between life and death after a heart attack. GETTY

Regular exercise helps the heart take a licking and keep on ticking even in the immediate aftermath of a myocardial infarction, according to a study that probes the protective power of physical activity.

The study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, notes that while it is no mystery that exercise improves overall heart health, little is known about the impact fitness has on an individual’s ability to actually survive a heart attack.

Heart disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada behind cancer, with close to 160,000 adults 20 years of age or older receiving a diagnosis annually, according to the Government of Canada. The likelihood of developing heart disease only increases with age and is more common among men than women. Roughly 12 Canadian patients — 20 years of age or older with a heart disease diagnosis — die every hour.

To better understand who survives, researchers pored over health data from 10 observational European studies of 28,140 individuals. The participants, who provided a baseline health assessment before suffering a heart attack prior to follow-up, were split into four groups based on leisure-time physical activity: High, moderate, low or sedentary. After adjusting for age, sex, blood pressure, smoking, family history and other extraneous variables, researchers analyzed the risk of death (immediately and within 28 days) for each of the groups.

In total, 4,976 people — a whopping 17.7 per cent of all participants — died within 28 days of suffering a heart attack, with 3,101 (62.3 per cent) dying immediately. The study found higher levels of physical activity significantly dropped the risk of instant death or death within the 28-day window. Patients in the high and moderate groups had a 45 per cent and 33 per cent decreased risk, respectively, of instant death. The benefits of exercise appeared to extend to the 28-day mark, with the risk of death decreasing by 28 per cent for the high activity group and 36 per cent for the moderate group. There was no statistical significance in the relationship with low levels of activity.

“Almost 18 per cent of patients with a heart attack died within 28 days, substantiating the severity of this condition,” said Kim Wadt Hansen, author of the study and a doctor at the Bispebjerg Hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark. “We found an immediate survival benefit of prior physical activity in the setting of a heart attack, a benefit which seemed preserved at 28 days.

“Based on our analyses, even a low amount of leisure-time physical activity may in fact be beneficial against fatal heart attacks, but statistical uncertainty precludes us from drawing any firm conclusions on that point.”

Hansen said the findings offer evidence for following European health guidance that calls for all healthy adults — regardless of age — to engage in activities of moderate intensity for at least 150 minutes a week or activities of high intensity for 75 minutes a week. “Our pooled analysis provides strong support for the recommendations on weekly physical activity in healthy adults stated in the 2016 European Guidelines on cardiovascular disease prevention in clinical practice; especially as we used cut-off values for physical activity comparable to those used in the guidelines,” she said.

“There are many ways to be physically active at little or no cost. Our study provides yet more evidence for the rewards of exercise.”

Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca

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