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Harnessing the Power of Youth: A Long-term Look at Physical Activity and Heart Health

Legend has it that Finn McCool is not dead at all. Or it may be that Fionn MacCumhaill, often anglicised to Finn McCool, died in old age in battle, or having hit his head on a rock. What isn’t in doubt is that he must have lived to an old age. What was his secret? Well, perhaps it was that he did so much exercise in his youth.

Today, if you spend any time on social media, advice on exercise seems to be extraordinarily complex. Yet one golden seam in the tapestry of health advice seems to stretch further and stronger with each passing study. That is the undeniable link between physical activity and heart health. The American Heart Association has long championed the mantra of achieving at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (PA) per week as a beacon for cardiovascular disease prevention. But let’s face it, tracking our weekly quota of physical exertion can sometimes feel like taking a toddler to a Sunday pub lunch —unpredictable and overly optimistic.

The Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study, decided to investigate how young adults’ dedication to physical activity (PA) could shape their cardiovascular destiny. This study sought to unearth the relationship between sustained physical activity in youth and the risk of heart-related events later in life. To do this it used a metric known as time in target range (TTR).

The study corralled 2,902 participants into four groups based on their PA TTR. The underachievers (<25%), the middling masses (25% to <50%), the diligent doers (50% to <75%), and the overachievers (75% to 100%). TTR was calculated across a span of 15 years. This period was presumably filled with vigorous padel games and possibly ill-advised attempts at parkour.

As the participants gracefully aged into their 40s, with a median follow-up period stretching nearly 19 years into the future, the fruits of their youthful exertions began to show. The overachievers, those with a TTR of at least 75%, flaunted a 40% lower risk of cardiovascular events compared to their less active counterparts. It seems that maintaining a high level of physical activity during those formative years could significantly shield one’s heart from future woes.

But there’s a kicker. For every 1-SD increase in TTR, there was a 21% decreased risk of heart-related events. This suggests that even incremental improvements in sticking to exercise guidelines can pay dividends for future heart health.

So, what’s the takeaway? Maintaining recommended levels of physical activity throughout young adulthood isn’t just a good idea. It’s a potentially life-altering strategy for warding off cardiovascular diseases later in life.

Imagine if we treated our physical activity habits like a high-yield savings account for our health. The more we deposit in our youth, the richer we become in terms of vitality and longevity. This study underscores the importance of a life course approach to managing our heart health. It suggests that the seeds of cardiovascular well-being are sown early. These seeds need to be nurtured with the same zeal we apply to our careers, relationships, and Netflix binges.

But what about those of us who may have missed the memo in our youth? It’s never too late to start. After all, in the journey of heart health, every step counts, no matter when you begin. Here’s to a heartier, healthier future, fueled by the enduring power of endurance exercise.

Dr J Hugh Coyne

Private GP

Coyne Medical