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  • A new study found that increasing brisk physical activity may help significantly decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Brisk activity (such as running or speedwalking) may provide more benefits than moderate activity (such as walking), even when overall activity does not change.
  • The study found an increase in brisk exercise could led to as much as a 40% drop in cardiac disease.

A recent study of activity levels and heart health found that brisk physical activity is more likely to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease than more moderate levels of exercise.

While physical activity has long been known to reduce the rate of certain heart conditions, the specific type of activity has typically not been separated from the duration of activity.

Brisk activity (such as running) may provide more benefits than moderate activity (such as walking), even when overall activity does not change. The study found an increase in brisk exercise could lead to as much as a 40% drop in cardiac disease.

Researchers said in addition to exercise intensity, it may also be the total hours of physical activity that makes the most difference.

Paddy Dempsey, PhD, Research Fellow at the University of Leicester and Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, and first author on the paper, said the wearable fitness trackers helped the team get better data.

“Most large-scale studies to date have used questionnaires to determine participants’ physical activity levels, but physical activity intensity and duration is hard to recall accurately, especially when it comes to low intensity every day activities like washing the car, or sorting laundry,” Dempsey said in a statement. “Without accurate records of physical activity duration and intensity it hasn’t been possible to sort out the contribution of more vigorous physical activity from that of overall physical activity volume.”

The study published October 27 in theEuropean Heart Journaltracked the exercise levels of 88,000 UK participants over a week by having them use a wearable device that tracked their steps. (Previous studies often used activity logs that participants filled out, which may have led to error as many overestimate their activity level.) Levels of physical activity were calculated by the movement data collected and how much of that activity was brisk and how much was moderate. The subjects were then followed for an average 6.8 years and their subsequent rate of cardiovascular diseases, such as a heart attack or a stroke, recorded. All participants were middle-aged and did not have any current cardiovascular conditions.

“The wearable device study of physical activity in 88,000 people is unique due to its use of research-grade activity trackers to measure physical activity volume and intensity. In this way, the researchers eschewed the more common study protocol of use of questionnaires to determine participants’ physical activity level,” said Dr. Rachel-Maria Brown Talaska, the director of inpatient cardiac services at Lenox Hill Hospital.

When the data was fully collected and analyzed, it was found that total activity volume was associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.

It was also found that when the rate of brisk exercise was increased from 10 percent of daily activity to 20 percent, the risk of cardiovascular disease fell a further 14 percent, even when daily activity levels were still low. The lowest cardiovascular disease rates were found in those that had higher levels of daily activity and higher rates of brisk to moderate activity.

“New data indicates that not only can sedentary behavior be deadly with increased cardiac events, but that physical activity is not only a modifier, but the intensity of that physical activity matters. The more vigorous your workouts, the greater the cardiac protection,” said Dr. Jayne Morgan, cardiologist and executive director of Health and Community Education at Piedmont Healthcare, Inc.

Increasing overall activity but not increasing the rate of brisk exercise did not further decrease heart disease risk. If overall activity increased and the rate of brisk exercise increased the rate of cardiovascular conditions was further lowered.

The rate of heart disease fell 23 percent when the proportion from moderate-to-vigorous physical activity rose by 20 percent. If the amount of brisk exercise was increased even further, by 40 percent, the rate of heart disease fell by 40 percent.

“While the type of physical activity was not specifically studied, converting current habits, or adopting new ones can be selected based on what fits into your lifestyle,” added Morgan. The study authors recommended increasing rates of brisk activity by trying to cover the same amount of distance in a shorter period of time, such as walking at a faster pace or doing more aerobics in the same period of time as before. They also went on to add that total activity levels are still important, and even if someone is unable to increase their brisk activity level by any significant amount lower intensity exercise is still valuable.

Both doctors agreed that the most important part of the study was the importance of getting higher overall activity levels. Brown Talaska suggested several new activities for those looking to increase their exercise intensity.

“Examples of vigorous physical activity include running, swimming laps, singles tennis, and jumping rope.” She also suggested that “Patients should incrementally increase physical activity in partnership with their healthcare provider; if you are doing nothing then do something – possibly light physical activity. If you are doing something – such as light physical activity, then do more – such as moderate or vigorous activity. Aim for the next level! Your heart will thank you.”

Morgan provided similar advice. “If you are a walker, as I am, time to pick up the pace. If you are a Pilates enthusiast, as I am, push yourself to do just a few more reps of the movements. Get your heart rate up and improve your overall health. Who knows? You may even shed a few pounds in the process.”