A family cycling together. Exercise is good for people with a family history of heart disease.

It’s no secret that physical activity is good for your heart, but a new study suggests that being active and fit can protect your heart even if you have a strong family history of heart disease.

“The main message of this study is that genetic risk isn’t deterministic,” says Erik Ingelsson, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and lead author of the study published in the American Heart Association journal, Circulation. “Even if your parents died early of heart disease, you can reduce your risk to the level of someone with no family history of the disease by increasing your fitness.” 

Decades of research have shown that exercise is good for your heart. Being physically fit has been linked to several cardiovascular benefits—including healthy body weight, lower blood pressure, and reduced inflammation.

But people with a family history of heart disease may have thought they were destined to have heart trouble, even if they exercised or made other lifestyle changes.

“This study further buoys what I’ve always said—that exercise is good for everyone and everything,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser.

Dramatic Decreases

In the new study, researchers from Stanford University and Uppsala University in Sweden analyzed data from a group of about half a million men and women, ages 49 to 60, gathered over an average of six years. The subjects’ genetic risk of heart disease was assessed using blood tests, and their physical activity, cardiovascular fitness, and grip strength were measured using a variety of methods. (Grip strength is a well-established indicator of overall muscle strength.)

More on Exercise and Heart Health

The researchers found that having good cardiovascular fitness and grip strength and staying active protected subjects from heart disease and atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat that increases risk of stroke, heart failure, and other complications) whether the participants were in the low, intermediate, or high genetic risk group for cardiovascular disease. Being fitter also cut the risk of premature death from any cause.  

Exercise bestowed big benefits for those with the highest genetic risk of heart problems. People in this group who were the most fit had a 49 percent lower risk of developing heart trouble. And subjects with robust grip strength experienced a 31 percent reduction in heart disease risk.

How Exercise Helps Your Heart

Getting more blood and oxygen pumping through your body during a workout helps keep your heart healthier in many ways, experts say. Exercise has been shown to improve your overall blood lipid levels by reducing triglycerides and increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol. A regular workout regimen also helps lower blood pressure.

“Exercise improves many physiological functions in the body, including the efficiency of the heart, blood vessels, and circulation,” says Carol Ewing Garber, Ph.D., professor of biobehavioral sciences at Teachers College, Columbia University. “In addition, it improves metabolism, reduces body fat and inflammation, and improves immune function—all of which can contribute to heart disease.” 

Get Your Heart Pumping

Because this was an observational study (which can show only an association, not cause and effect), the results can’t be used to recommend a specific type or duration of exercise, Stanford’s Ingelsson says.

However, the American Heart Association recommends that adults get a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic exercise—anything that increases your heart rate, such as brisk walking, water aerobics, biking, tennis, or ballroom dancing.

Even those who do little to no moderate-to-vigorous physical activity can help their hearts just by adding in any amount of light physical activity, according to 2018 guidelines issued by the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee.

“The key is to spend more time moving and less time being sedentary,” Garber says. (As always, if you’re middle-aged or older, consult with your doctor before starting—or increasing the intensity of—an exercise program, especially if you are at high risk of heart disease.)

The results of this study suggest that both cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength are important for reducing your risk of heart disease, Ingelsson says. So in addition to an aerobic workout, be sure to do muscle-strengthening moves (such as lifting weights or yoga) at least twice a week.