The study was published today, Wednesday 9th January, in the European Heart Journal and was led by Professors Morten Grønbæk and Berit Heitmann. Grønbæk is Director of Research of the National Institute of Public Health at the University of Southern Denmark in Copenhagen, and Heitmann is Director for Research of the Institute of Preventive Medicine at Copenhagen University Hospitals.
The researchers found that people who don't drink alcohol and don't exercise had a 30 to 49 per cent elevated risk of heart disease compared to those who either exercise, drink, or both.
According to the researchers this was the first study to examine the combined effect of alcohol and exercise on fatal ischaemic heart disease (where the heart doesn't get enough blood) and death from all causes.
Grønbæk and Heitmann looked at the health records that included information on exercise levels and alcohol intake, of 11,914 Danish men and women who were aged 20 or more and gave baseline data in the Copenhagen City Heart Study between 1981 and 1983. The researchers were able to track deaths among the group for a follow up period of about 20 years.
During the follow up, 1,242 participants died of fatal ischaemic heart disease (IHD) and 5,901 from all causes.
The researchers put physical activity into three categories:
- No physical activity: fewer than 2 hours of light physical activity a week.
- Low physical activity: two to four of light physical activity per week (walking, cycling, light gardening, and so on).
- Moderate to high physical activity: light physical activity for more than four hours a week or more vigorous physical activity for two or more hours a week: sports that cause perspiration, heavy gardening, fast cycling, brisk walking, competitive sports several times a week, regular heavy exercising.
The results showed that:
- within each level of physical activity, non-drinkers had a 30 to 31 per cent higher risk of IHD than moderate drinkers.
- But non-drinkers who had a moderate or high level of physical activity had a reduced risk of IHD of 31 and 33 per cent compared with non-drinkers who were physically inactive.
- People who had at least one drink of alcohol a week and were classed as physically active had a 44 to 50 per cent lower risk of IHD compared with non-drinkers who were physically inactive.
- For each category of weekly alcohol consumption, the physically inactive had the highest risk of death from all causes (including IHD).
- Within each category of physical activity, the moderate drinkers had the lowest risk of death from all causes.
- Compared with physically inactive non-drinkers, being physically active was linked to 23 per cent lower risk of death from all causes.
- Compared with physically inactive non-drinkers, being physically active and having a moderate weekly alcohol intake was linked with 12 to 33 per cent lower risk of death from all causes.
- For both men and women, being physically active was linked to significantly lower risk of both fatal IHD and death from all causes than being physically inactive.
"The lowest risk of death from all causes was observed among the physically active moderate drinkers and the highest risk among the physically inactive non- and heavy drinkers."
She said that an important implication of the research was that physical activity can reverse some of the health decline linked to alcohol abstention. This might reassure people who don't drink alcohol for a range of reasons such as religion, pregnancy, or a history of alcoholism.
"People who did not drink but whose physical activity was moderate or high, had a lower risk of IHD than the inactive non-drinkers," said Pedersen.
She concluded that:
"Neither physical activity alone nor alcohol intake can completely reverse the increased risk associated with alcohol abstention and lack of physical activity. Thus, both moderate to high levels of physical activity and a moderate alcohol intake are important for lowering the risk of fatal IHD and deaths from all causes."
"The combined influence of leisure-time physical activity and weekly alcohol intake on fatal ischaemic heart disease and all-cause mortality."
Jane Østergaard Pedersen, Berit Lilienthal Heitmann, Peter Schnohr, and Morten Grønbæk.
European Heart Journal, Advance Access published on January 9, 2008.
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Sources: OUP Press Release, journal article.