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Exercise and the Risk of Stroke, Heart Disease

Many of us make a promise each New Year to improve our health with exercise and healthy eating. But not as many stick with them. The latest research is showing that you should definitely stick with exercising, though you might be able to forgo the resolution about eating less, even if you should still eat healthfully.

Exercise and stroke

Over half a million Americans will suffer from a stroke this year. In a recent review of 18 studies involving exercise and the risk of stroke, researchers found participants who were moderately active had a 20% lower risk of stroke than low-active participants. Moreover, highly active individuals had a 27% lower risk of stroke compared to low-active participants. This suggests the more you exercise the better it is for you.

Good news for those of us who just can't get gung-ho for exercise: even a moderate level of exercise will give you benefit. The protective effect of exercise is apparent for both types of strokes, those caused by an interruption of blood flow to the brain (ischemic) and those caused by a ruptured blood vessel in the brain (hemorrhagic). Researchers believe exercise reduces the risk of stroke by lowering blood pressure (a major cause of strokes), as well as by improving blood vessel functioning.

Dieting, exercise, and heart disease

Instead of jumping on the treadmill, some people try to improve their health by cutting down on the amount of calories they consume. Caloric restriction diets have created a buzz; experiments in animals suggest this method of dieting actually extends life. But the limited number of studies in humans have had mixed results.

A recent study of the relationship between exercise, body mass index (BMI, a measure of obesity), caloric intake, and death from cardiovascular disease (CVD) shows calorie counting is actually not the way to go. Researchers followed close to 10,000 healthy people age 25-74 for 17 years. They found a lower level of activity and obesity were each associated with a greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Further, individuals who were the least active, obese, and consumed the fewest calories had a greater risk of death from CVD than individuals who exercised the most, were of normal body weight, and had the highest caloric intake.

These results suggest caloric intake is not directly related to CVD deaths. Rather, the key to extending healthy life is not how much you eat, but how much energy you expend. Increasing your activity level can help to lower your BMI and prevent cardiovascular disease.

Diet OR exercise?

If you can only hold yourself to one New Year's resolution this year, make it the one about exercising more. A change to a more active lifestyle will help protect your health. Before you begin an exercise regimen, be sure to consult with your doctor about what is best for you. Ease into this new lifestyle with gradual changes, it'll be easier to stick to. And if you forgot about making resolutions this year, it's never too late.

February 2004 Update

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