genetic risk

A new study found that keeping physically fit enhances heart health, even for those with a high genetic risk for heart disease. (Image: Pixabay)

Keeping fit, even if you’re born with a high genetic risk for heart disease, still works to keep your heart healthy, according to a new study.

In one of the largest observational studies on fitness and heart disease, researchers examined data collected from nearly a half million people in the UK Biobank database. They found that people with higher levels of grip strength, physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness had a genetic predisposition for heart disease. 

“People should not just give up on exercise because they have a high genetic risk for heart disease,” said Erik Ingelsson, MD, PhD, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Standford Medicine. “And vice versa: Even if you have a low genetic risk, you should still get exercise. It all ties back to what we have known all along: It’s a mix of genes and environment that influences health.” 


DNA Study Redefines Link Between ‘Fat Gene’ and Bodyweight


A paper describing the research is published in Circulation. 

To determine the fitness and activity levels of participants, researchers used data previously collected from nearly 500,000 participants who underwent grip-strength that correlate with overall body strength; answered questions about their levels of physical activity; wore accelerometers on their wrists for seven days; took stationary-cycling tests. Genetic data from 468,095 of the participants was also used in the study. 

Researchers found that across the board that higher levels of fitness and physical activity were associated with lower levels of several negative cardiovascular outcomes, including coronary artery disease, stroke and atrial fibrillation. 

Among those considered at high genetic risk for heart disease, high levels of cardiorespiratory fitness were associated with a 49% lower risk for coronary heart disease and a 60% lower risk for atrial fibrillation compared with study participants with low cardiorespiratory fitness. 


Diet, Exercise and Genes: 23andMe to Launch Huge Weight Loss Study


For participants deemed at intermediate genetic risk for cardiovascular diseases, those with the strongest grips were 36% less likely to develop coronary heart disease and had a 46% reduction in their risk for atrial fibrillation compared with study participants who had the same genetic risk and the weakest grips. Researchers determined various levels of genetic risk according to measurements based on discoveries from genome-wide association studies, the most common study design to discover genetic variation associated with disease. 

Given little has been known about the risk-modifying effects of exercise in individuals with increased genetic risk of cardiovascular disease, these results could have important ramifications for public health the study said. 

“This is important because of how we advise our patients,” Ingelsson said. “It’s basically indicating that you can make some lifestyle changes, be more physically active and it can make a difference to your long-term health.” 


Materials provided by Stanford Medicine. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.