Working out twice as long as recommended cuts risk of death by nearly a third

DALLAS — It’s no secret that exercising can lead to a longer and healthier life. Working out reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death. Now, a new study finds going above and beyond the recommended amount of weekly exercise can significantly reduce the risk of death among adults. Researchers say working out between 150 and 600 minutes a week can cut a person’s risk of early death by up to a third.

Researchers analyzed 100,000 participants over a 30-year period for their study. They found that adults who performed two to four times the standard amount of moderate or vigorous exercise per week had a significantly lower risk of death from all causes. Among those who engaged in this much vigorous physical activity, the risk of mortality fell by 21 to 23 percent. For those who participated in two to four times the recommended amount of moderate physical activity, the death risk dropped 26 to 31 percent.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends adults get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity weekly, or a combination of both. Meanwhile, the American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity.

“The potential impact of physical activity on health is great, yet it remains unclear whether engaging in high levels of prolonged, vigorous or moderate intensity physical activity above the recommended levels provides any additional benefits or harmful effects on cardiovascular health,” says Dong Hoon Lee, Sc.D., M.S., a research associate in the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, in a media release. “Our study leveraged repeated measures of self-reported physical activity over decades to examine the association between long-term physical activity during middle and late adulthood and mortality.”

Does working out ‘too much’ damage the heart?

Researchers gathered death and medical records on more than 100,000 adults from two large prospective studies: the all-female Nurses’ Health Study and the all-male Health Professionals Follow-up Study from 1988 to 2018. Sixty-three percent of study participants were female, and more than 96 percent were white. They had an average age of 66 and had an average body mass index (BMI) of 26 kg/m2.

Participants filled out a questionnaire every two years, self-reporting on their physical activity. Researchers say the exercise data revealed each person’s average time spent per week on various physical activities over the past year.

The study found that adults who performed double the recommended range of either moderate or vigorous exercise each week had the lowest long-term risk of mortality. Data also revealed that adults working out more than four times the recommended minimum levels did not suffer from harmful cardiovascular health effects. Previous studies found evidence that long-term, high-intensity exercise may increase the risk of adverse cardiovascular events.

“This finding may reduce the concerns around the potential harmful effect of engaging in high levels of physical activity observed in several previous studies,” explains Lee.

However, study authors note those exercising for more than four times the recommended weekly minimum did not see any additional reduction in their risk of death.

“Our study provides evidence to guide individuals to choose the right amount and intensity of physical activity over their lifetime to maintain their overall health,” notes Lee. “Our findings support the current national physical activity guidelines and further suggest that the maximum benefits may be achieved by performing medium to high levels of either moderate or vigorous activity or a combination.”

The study is published in the journal Circulation.

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