Whether you’re a fitness newbie or a seasoned gym-goer, finishing a good workout makes you feel virtuous. Alongside this feel-good factor, new research shows a single workout may immediately protect the heart against cardiovascular disease.
Cardiovascular disease refers to both coronary heart disease and diseases of the circulation, such as stroke – when a clot blocks blood supply to the brain. Stroke is the country’s third biggest killer and claims 70,000 lives each year.
We’ve known for a while that staying physically active (guidelines recommend around 150 minutes of exercise a week) minimises the risk of cardiovascular disease, by reducing body and fat mass, maintaining healthy cholesterol and insulin levels and lowering blood pressure, amongst other factors. But these things don’t happen overnight – getting fit and healthy, generally, takes months.
What a new review published in JAMA Cardiology and led by Liverpool John Moores University’s Professor Dick Thijssen shows is the benefits of exercise seem to be present themselves far sooner. In fact, the research reveals that only one episode of exercise may provide early protection of the heart for 2- 3 hours, followed by a more robust and prolonged period of protection that emerges after 24 hours – and remains for several days. “One episode of exercise can create clinically relevant cardioprotection,” concluded the authors.
This theory is based on the well-known concept that the heart is protected against a blockade of blood flow (such as a myocardial infarction) when it is repeatedly exposed to short periods of blood flow blockade, prior to the event. This essentially ‘prepares’ the heart against damage. And it seems various types of exercise have the similar effect of protecting the heart.
Dick Thijssen, a Professor in Cardiovascular Physiology and Exercise at the LJMU School of Sport and Exercise Sciences explains:
“Protecting the heart through exercise is an easy, inexpensive, and powerful therapy that deserves greater recognition and further resources to establish the optimal dose. This is a key review summarising how a single bout of exercise can have a clear impact in keeping the heart adequately supplied with blood. Firstly, this means that one bout of exercise can cause clinically relevant protection against cardiovascular disease. Secondly, this means that benefits of exercise are present, even in the absence of changes in risk factors. These are both important and powerful messages for all who want to take up exercise.”
Researchers have recommended that one way clinicians could use this to help patients is with “prehabilitation”: a few sessions of exercise planned for the days preceding planned cardiac intervention. For example, a patient would participate in planned physical therapy before the intervention with the aim of reducing cardiovascular complications.
“Cardioprotection through exercise preconditioning is a facile, inexpensive, and potent therapy that deserves greater recognition and further resources to establish the optimal dose. Nonetheless, as is so often the case with the benefits of exercise, its prescription follows the cardinal rule: use it or lose it.”
The study authors expressed hope is that this may reduce in-hospital mortality and disease, assuming that patients have the capacity for physical activity.
If you want to increase your physical activity and have a pre-existing condition, consult your GP or a registered physiotherapist.