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Exercise linked to better heart attack survival

WebMD UK Health News Brief
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith
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12th April 2017 -- People who exercise regularly are more likely to survive a heart attack, according to a study.

Exercise is already known to help prevent heart disease and early death, but for this study researchers focussed on heart attack survival.

Copenhagen City Heart Study

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark looked at data from a study of 14,223 people in a heart study that began in 1976 with medical and death records followed up until 2013.

Anyone who had already had a stroke or heart attack was excluded. During the study time 1,664 people experienced heart attacks, and of these, 425 died straight away from their attack.

Study participants filled in questionnaires saying how much exercise they did during their leisure time:

  • Sedentary - less than 2 hours a week
  • Light - 2-4 hours a week with activities such as walking or cycling
  • Moderate - more than 4 hours a week, or 2-4 hours of more vigorous activity such as brisk walking or fast cycling
  • High - more than 4 hours a week of vigorous activity, regular hard training or competitive sport.


As the researchers might have expected, taking more exercise was linked with a better chance of surviving a heart attack - and a worse chance among those doing light exercise or hardly any.

Those doing light exercise were 32% less likely to die from a heart attack compared with sedentary people, and those doing moderate or high physical activity 47% less likely.

NHS guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week - the moderate category in this study.

The researchers say the protective effect of exercise could be down to better blood flow to the heart muscle and promoting chemicals that help reduce heart damage after an attack.

However, exercise did not protect heart attack survivors against developing heart failure or early death.

Although the study had the benefit of a large number of people taking part, one weakness was that the amount of exercise people said they did couldn’t be checked.

Overall the study can't prove a cause and effect between more exercise and heart attack survival, just an association.

However, researchers say there are probably benefits of continuing to exercise even after being diagnosed with heart disease due to narrowing of the arteries called atherosclerosis.

Reviewed on April 12, 2017

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