Exercise and Cardiovascular Health

Our nation is faced with an increasing health threat called the metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is characterized by a constellation of risk factors that altogether increase one's risk for cardiovascular disease, including coronary artery disease, stroke, and type II diabetes. Abdominal weight gain and insulin resistance are two key features of metabolic syndrome. Additional risks include aging, sedentary lifestyle, and genetic predisposition. The activity of one's lifestyle and genetic predisposition(s) has long been known to impact health, issues addressed experimentally in animals1. Laboratory rats were identified by their aerobic capacity. Low aerobic capacity animals were bred as one group, and high aerobic capacity animals were bred as a separate group. After 11 generations of breeding, the discrepancy in aerobic capacity among groups was exaggerated, and low aerobic capacity animals displayed an increase in the biological markers characteristic of metabolic syndrome. Exercise training improved aerobic capacity in both groups, but this improvement was greatest in the high aerobic capacity animals. These results demonstrate that cardiovascular risk can be determined by one's genetic predisposition. But can one impact this risk by behavior modification?

The findings of Wisloff et al. show that exercise reduces cardiovascular risk1. Along with aerobic training, Mozaffarian and colleagues2 teach us that diet is an important factor in managing the weight gain that makes one susceptible to developing metabolic syndrome. In men and women studied prospectively, the consumption of food items such as potato chips, potatoes, sugar-sweetened drinks, unprocessed red meats, and processed meats were associated with weight gain, whereas vegetable, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and yogurt were not. The take home message from these two studies is that balancing an active lifestyle with a disciplined, healthy diet will help to mitigate the risk of developing metabolic syndrome.


  1. Wisloff, U., et al. Cardiovascular risk factors emerge after artificial selection for low aerobic capacity. Science 307, 418-420 (2005).
  2. Mozaffarian, D., Hao, T., Rimm, E.B., Willett, W.C. & Hu, F.B. Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in women and men. N Engl J Med 364, 2392-2404 (2011).

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