How to live longer: The optimal amount of exercise you must do to boost longevity

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Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are the number one cause of death globally, taking an estimated 17.9 million lives each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). CVDs are a group of disorders of the heart and blood vessels and include coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, rheumatic heart disease and other conditions. Regular exercise can slash your risk of cardiovascular disease and new research suggests there is no limit to the benefits it unleashes.

A new, large-cohort study led by the University of Oxford used accelerometers (wrist-worn devices) to accurately record the activity of more than 90,000 participants over a five year period.

The researchers on the study found that physical activity is not only associated with lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, but the greatest benefit is seen for those who are active at the highest level.

Over the five-year follow up period, 3,617 of the participants were diagnosed with cardiovascular disease (3,305 nonfatal and 312 fatal).

This included 2,220 men and 1,397 women. In the participants, as the amount of moderate and vigorous physical activity increased, cases of cardiovascular disease decreased, with no threshold where the effects of exercise stopped improving cardiovascular health.

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All told, the protective effect of physical activity against cardiovascular disease was:

  • 48 percent to 57 percent for those in the top quarter of all physical activity
  • 49 percent to 59 percent for those in the top quarter of moderate-intensity activity
  • 54 percent to 63 percent for those in the top quarter of vigorous-intensity activity.

Associate Professor Aiden Doherty, from the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Population Health and one of the lead authors of the study, said: “This is the largest ever study of 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.”

Professor Terry Dwyer, from the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Women’s & Reproductive Health and lead author of the study, said: “The results of this study enhance confidence that physical activity is likely to be an important way of preventing cardiovascular disease.

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“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.”

The results of the study were similar for men and women, although the benefits of vigorous exercise appeared to be particularly strong for women.

Although those who exercised more were also more likely to not smoke, to have a healthy body mass index (BMI) and a moderate alcohol intake, the researchers adjusted for these factors and found that the association between increased exercise and a decrease in cardiovascular disease was still strong.

These results demonstrate that exercise alone has a significant effect on cardiovascular disease risk.

Key dietary tips

The findings should not downplay the importance of making heart-health dietary decisions, however.

A healthy diet can help reduce your risk of developing coronary heart disease and stop you gaining weight, reducing your risk of diabetes and high blood pressure – heart disease precursors.

As the British Heart Foundation (BHF) explains, everyone should aim for a well balanced diet.

“Faddy crash diets may not provide the balance of nutrients you need,” says the BHF.

You should try to eat:

  • Plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • Plenty of starchy foods such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta. Choose whole grain varieties wherever possible
  • Some milk and dairy productsSome meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
  • Only a small amount of foods and drinks high in fats and/or sugar.

You should also shun foods high in saturated fat – too much saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood – a precursor of heart disease.

“Unsaturated fats, which can be monounsaturated fats (for example olive oil, rapeseed oil, almonds, unsalted cashews and avocado) or polyunsaturated fats (including sunflower oil and vegetable oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds and oily fish) are a healthier choice,” says the BHF.

Many of these components can be found in a Mediterranean diet.

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